Misadventures in the Dialectic (or A Nasty Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum)

by E. John Winner

Thus precisely in labour where there seemed to be merely some outsider’s mind and ideas involved, the bondsman becomes aware, through this re-discovery of himself by himself, of having and being a ‘mind of his own.’ [1]

When Hegel, in the Phenomenology of Mind, makes an abrupt transition from epistemology per se (how we know about anything at all) into an historicized social epistemology (how knowledge is socially and historically conditioned), he begins at an odd point in history, with an analysis of the relationship between lords and bondsmen; or, as it is better known, the Master-Slave dialectic.  What the Master learns in this dialectic is that he not only commands things, but does so through the mediation of commanding his slaves.  It is the Slave, however, who turns out to be the real protagonist in this narrative – what he learns is the necessity of living for others, and through that, his own independence from “things”; that is, from the material.

In a series of important lectures in the 1930’s, the Master-Slave Dialectic received an interpretation by the Russian emigre to France, Alexandre Kojeve, which had enormous impact on French intellectual history, especially on Existentialist thinkers like Sartre, as well as on the development of Lacanian psychoanalysis.  [2]  Although written more than ten years after Kojeve’s lectures, Albert Camus’ The Rebel (1951), a text widely popular among those who have never even heard of Kojeve, is in fact a response to Kojeve.

Within Existentialism itself (and in French philosophy generally), an ongoing debate over the Marxist implications of Kojeve’s lectures emerged.  Indeed, the Marxian narrative of the historical development of a Materialist Dialectic arriving at Modern capitalism (in preparation of a future communism),  depends on the Master-Slave Dialectic, because it assumes that the economy of the Roman Empire was principally a “slave economy” [3]; that is, slaves provided the primary means of production, as well as the central market (in the exchange of slaves) and the essential social structure, of the empire – there were slave owners, there were slaves, and there were cast-off slaves who, scrounging for work where they could find it, formed a nascent proletariat.

A reasonable interpretation of the Phenomenology (given Hegel’s own historical interests and biases) suggests that Hegel’s writing here arose as a meditation on the introduction of Christianity into the culture of Rome [4].  When Hegel wrote this, scholars believed – as they did until quite recently – that Christianity spread through the Empire by appealing to the poor; i.e., to slaves and former slaves [5].  Recent scholarship, however, has proven this untrue, and it appears that Christianity’s greatest appeal in Rome was to the middle classes – businessmen, lawyers, tradesmen [6].  (Only a middle class could afford the charitable social work that Christians engaged in.)  This does not really threaten Hegel (who, after all, is talking about ideas, and in a most general way), but it doomed Marxist historiography.

Evidence has been piling up that the economy of the Roman Empire was not primarily a slave economy, but a sophisticated capitalist one, based on international trade [7].  Even without the accumulating evidence, one realizes that it couldn’t have been otherwise.  The Roman Empire not only conducted trade with client states in the Mediterranean, but with co-existing empires over which they had no direct control, including those in India and China, as well as with cultures in Africa, which they had no desire to control.  Such trade could not be centered around a market for slaves – beyond precious metals or mere commodity exchange, there had to be negotiable systems of exchange of wealth with symbolic representation of equivalent value, namely money.  And where there is money, there is capitalism [8].

However, it is with some degree of irony that we can see that long before the archaeological evidence was unearthed and pieced together showing that Rome was in fact a capitalist society, there actually existed documentary evidence of this (since Nero), which has been available to literati since the 17th century.   I don’t mean accounting records, some Roman economist’s commentary or remarks made by some court historian.  I’m referring to a work of prose fiction; indeed, one of the funniest, most incisive, and, surprisingly, most realistic texts ever written:  The Satyricon, attributed to Petronius Arbiter [9].

We don’t really know who wrote Satyricon.  We don’t even know the original shape of it.  All we have are fragments, preserved in monastic libraries, until the 17th century, when secular book collectors got their hands on it thanks to Protestant looting of those libraries [10].   Some evidence suggests that the fragments are mere slivers from a much longer work, but internal evidence from the text itself shows a remarkable thematic consistency, suggesting that the fragments we do have at least form a narrative sequence within any larger whole. [11]

Satyricon is a wild ride through the underbelly of Roman society of its time.  The narrative is what later would be called a picaresque, a disjointed series of adventures of social outcasts, whose main interests in life are sex (primarily homoerotic) and food and finding some way to acquire the capital with which to procure them.   The narrator and protagonist of the story, Encolpius, has just dropped out of the Roman equivalent of an undergraduate course in literature, in order to compete with a former lover (Ascyltus) for the affections of a young boy, Giton. [12]  Being an educated lowlife, Encolpius isn’t interested in finding suitable employment, but instead tries attaching himself to well-to-do patrons.  This leads to bizarre sexual experiences, meetings with failed poets, tasteless feasts put on by Roman tradesmen, fake religious rites (always good for initiating orgies), and capture by pirates at sea.  As the fragments close, the story doesn’t appear to be going well, as Eumolpus, an aging poet and tutor to whom Encolpius has attached himself, fails to realize an inheritance, which effectively condemns him to death among those who had been supporting him.

The most famous sequence of the narrative is Encolpius’ attendance at a banquet thrown by a successful tradesman, Trimalchio.  The sequence is a fairly complete, unified set-piece.  We first find Trimalchio at a recreation center, playing ball.  When he has to urinate, a slave rushes up with a bucket so that Trimalchio can relieve himself while still playing.  Meanwhile, another slave counts the balls that Trimalchio recurrently loses in play (to recover later), so that his master can toss out a new ball with every flub, as if he hadn’t lost any.   The tone is thus set for one of the most outrageous displays of conspicuous consumption – and conspicuous waste – in the history of Western literature.

At length some slaves came in who spread upon the couches some coverlets upon which were embroidered nets and hunters stalking their game with boar-spears, and all the paraphernalia of the chase.  We knew not what to look for next, until a hideous uproar commenced, just outside the dining-room door, and some Spartan hounds commenced to run around the table all of a sudden.  A tray followed them, upon which was served a wild boar of immense size, wearing a liberty cap upon its head, and from its tusks hung two little baskets of woven palm fibre, one of which contained Syrian dates, the other, Theban.  Around it hung little suckling pigs made from pastry, signifying that this was a brood-sow with her pigs at suck.  It turned out that these were souvenirs intended to be taken home.  When it came to carving the boar, our old friend Carver, who had carved the capons, did not appear, but in his place a great bearded giant, with bands around his legs, and wearing a short hunting cape in which a design was woven.  Drawing his hunting-knife, he plunged it fiercely into the boar’s side, and some thrushes flew out of the gash.  Fowlers, ready with their rods, caught them in a moment, as they fluttered around the room and Trimalchio ordered one to each guest, remarking, “Notice what fine acorns this forest-bred boar fed on,” and as he spoke, some slaves removed the little baskets from the tusks and divided the Syrian and Theban dates equally among the diners. [13]

This would seem to support Marxian analysis of the culture of a slave-based economy; but there’s a problem with this.  Trimalchio’s biography has to be pieced together from his own remarks, those of his guests, as well as portraiture found on the walls of the hall leading to the banquet room.   But it amounts to this:  Trimalchio had been born a slave to a wealthy merchant.  He had proven so good at his chores that he rose to the position of steward of the estate of the merchant, who provided him with an allowance.  This he saved and invested until he could buy his freedom and position himself as inheritor of the merchant’s business [14].  Trimalchio has since spent his life acquiring greater wealth and rubbing it in the noses of failed businessmen whom he turns into his personal court of sycophants.

The banquet seems to be winding down, probably intended to end at dawn [15] (like Plato’s Symposium, which it somewhat parodies), when Trimalchio (always one to sing his own praises) reveals the intended epitaph on his tomb:

Here Rests G Pompeius Trimalchio

Freedman Of Maecenas

Decreed Augustal, Sevir In His Absence

He Could Have Been A Member Of

 Every Decuria Of Rome But Would Not

Conscientious Brave Loyal

He Grew Rich From Little And Left

Thirty Million Sesterces Behind

He Never Heard A Philosopher

 Farewell Trimalchio

 Farewell Passerby” [16]

Well, that’s his story, and he’s sticking with it, even after death: a dash of truth in a swill of self-admiration.

After a violent argument with his wife (formerly a prostitute) over his bisexual promiscuity, Trimalchio then returns to this theme, by effectively staging his own funeral; whereat he eulogizes himself in the crudest manner possible, boasting of his use of sex, investments, and shady business practices to build a financial empire.  “So your humble servant, who was a frog, is now a king.”  [17]

So much for the slave coming to self-consciousness by realizing the importance of working for others!

The Satyricon is the rotten apple in the bushel, not only of literary history, but of the literature of history.  Besides being unabashedly pornographic, unrepentantly cynical in the nastiest way, and thoroughly disrespectful of social manners while dismissive of any aspiration toward decency and good fellowship, the Satyricon paints an unnervingly realistic portrait of the people of ancient Rome and of their social environment.   It’s not a pretty picture, and it fails to conform to any of the expectations into which we have been long indoctrinated, by traditional historical narratives or the works of art that disseminated these.  Rome was not just monumental architecture and statues in the forum.  It was an ugly, over-populated metropolis, with tenement slums, a criminal underworld, thriving markets riddled with unethical business practices.  Alcoholism and drug abuse were rampant, and the working classes found their greatest distraction in public displays of cruelty, in the arena.   But more importantly, the people, as we find them in the Satyricon, are completely like ourselves.  We’ve met these people, we see them all around us.  Donald Trump is just a variant Trimalchio.  And who hasn’t encountered a pedantic professor pummeling students with bloated jargon that even he doesn’t understand?   I myself knew someone rather like a straight Encolpius in college; a bright mathematics student, he went through seven different sexual relationships in one semester (his general attitude toward women was best expressed in his parody of a classic song: “nothing could be finah than to wake in some vagina in the mo-o-orning…”).  There was never a day I met him when he wasn’t drunk or hung-over.

Moral improvement, political progress, aspirations toward a greater enlightenment and a brighter future; fables we tell ourselves to bring order to our lives and provide our children with hope.  To all such pretense the Satyricon raises a middle finger (as occasionally do its characters in the text).

What has really changed in human nature since Petronius?  We claim to know more about the world, but apparently we still do not know ourselves.  For two thousand years, Europe was able to mask this lack of self-recognition with a powerful ideological machine, supported by a monumental institutional structure with intimidating influence among political leaders.  As this began to fall apart, scientists, philosophers, poets and political revolutionaries sought to develop a similarly powerful ideology with an equal ability to suppress self-recognition.  But these are only stories, after all – told in mathematics sometimes, more often in heated rhetoric, but all just fables that we hope are true.  The only real change Modernity brought us has been new technology.   And all the new technology has accomplished is providing new commodities for thriving markets riddled with unethical business practices and war-mongers.

Marx is dead, but Hegel survives, as one of the grand fables of Modernity’s explanations for why we have any ideology at all and why we feel satisfied with our supposed progress [18].  Reading Hegel helps us to understand how we wish to think of ourselves, and of the history that we believe created us.  But the Satyricon shows us people as they are, at least in any complex, mercantile culture that we care to call a civilization.  Not all people, but enough that we should be more aware of – see with greater clarity – our own social environment, which hasn’t really improved so much in three thousand years.

Notes

[1] Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind; B. Self-consciousness, IV. The true nature of Self-Certainty, A. Independence and Dependence of Self-Consciousness: Lordship and Bondage.  J. B. Bailllie translation, 1910.

[2] Kojeve, who served in the French government after WWII, always claimed to be a Marxist, even a Stalinist, but slathered insults on the Soviet Union, and remained friends to the end with conservative political philosopher (and former student of Heidegger’s) Leo Strauss, whose best known student is Allan Bloom.  Bloom was the editor of the English translation of Kojeve’s lectures, 1969:

https://u.osu.edu/dialecticseastandwest/files/2016/02/KOJEVE-introduction-to-the-reading-of-hegel-zg6tm7.pdf.   (Camus’ response to Kojeve, The Rebel, is also online: https://libcom.org/files/The-Rebel-Albert-Camus.pdf.)   Bloom’s best known student is Francis Fukuyama, who acted as de-facto philosophic counsel to the George W. Bush administration; his best known text: The End of History and the Last Man, 1989; essay prospectus: http://www.wesjones.com/eoh.htm

[3] See: http://www.marxist.com/historical-materialism-study-guide.htm.

[4] The Master-Slave Dialectic actually precedes a discussion of the Roman philosophies of Stoicism and Skepticism.  For Hegel, Christianity found its natural intellectual home in Rome, because Rome had produced the individualization of consciousness that Christianity requires, while exhausting all the reasonable expression of it possible within Roman culture itself.  (Per Hegel, Jewish culture, wherein Christianity originated, had found itself in a cul-de-sac of rigid, written “divine” law and inherited custom.)  By now, it should be obvious that we see in Hegel, not a theological explanation of history, but an historical explanation of theology, at least given the assumptions and accepted scholarly knowledge available to Hegel.

[5] Thus, for instance, Nietzsche’s claim that Christianity represented a “slave morality.”

[6] See: the review of scholarly opinion at: http://christianthinktank.com/urbxctt.html, especially section 13, Christianity was mostly made up of ‘middling-plus’ class folks: merchants, tradesmen, craftsmen.

[7] See:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_economy

[8] Even Marx understood this, which is one reason he hated the very idea of money. See: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/power.htm. He just hoped that money had been a recent invention.  Nope; it’s been here throughout most of recorded history.  See:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_money.  I warn the reader that in this instance, the Wiki article is flawed, since it concentrates entirely on the history of money in the West.  In fact, there is evidence that the Chinese developed money at roughly the same time as the West, but paper currency much earlier.  See: http://www.nbbmuseum.be/en/2007/09/chinese-invention.htm.

[9] Our translation is that of W. C. Firebaugh (1922), which includes fascinating, if dated, scholarly notes:  http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=5225.

[10] See:  http://bookmendc.blogspot.com/2010/10/transmission-of-text-of-petronius.html.  My suspicion – but this is only a guess – is that clergy believed the text worthy of preservation, despite its scandalous material, because it included necessary keys to colloquial Latin.  Some Roman slang is only preserved in the Satyricon.  Besides, as Augustine argued in Civitas Dei, not only was the Roman Empire a dung heap, but secular history, as opposed to Sacred History – i.e., the relationship between Man and God – was entirely a waste of time.  See: http://sacs-stvi.org/augustine-on-the-concept-of-history.

[11] For instance:  Early in the text we get a discussion of the cannibalism performed on their children by mothers in besieged cities; and the existing text ends with Eumolpius demanding that his executioners eat his body.

[12] A requirement in the study of rhetoric, which tells us that Encolpius – like Augustine, two centuries later – was intended by his family for a career in law.

[13] Satyricon, Chapter Fortieth.

[14] And it certainly helped that he was the merchant’s lover, or “mistress,” as he remarks with drunken pride.

[15] It should end at dawn, but when Trimalchio hears the cock crow, he immediately orders it caught and cooked.

[16] Satyricon, Chapter Seventy-First.  “Decreed Augustal, Sevir In His Absence/ He Could Have Been A Member Of/ Every Decuria Of Rome But Would Not” – Trimalchio claims that he was appointed to the Priests of Augustus, and would have been welcome in any of the officially recognized cults of Rome; but (he implies) his modesty prohibited acceptance of such honors.

[17] Satyricon, Chapter Seventy-Seventh.

[18] In order to have an ideology, we must confront external disagreements with and internal contradictions to our beliefs, which are then resolved and appropriated, negated and cancelled, or marginalized and ignored.  We thus arrive at generalities that we comfortably assume are necessary and superior to those that came before.  Hegel’s is not the only description of this process, but it is in many ways the most powerful.  My argument here has been that the evidence of the Satyricon is that the margins keep coming back, the contradictions are rarely resolved, and it is an inevitable human trait to be thoroughly disagreeable.

24 Comments »

  1. EJ, this is amazing. You’ve outdone yourself. What a fascinating, learned, enticing connection you’ve made with the Satyricon.

    Somewhat off topic, was Sade influenced by the Satyricon? It seems like he would have been.

    Like

  2. EJ,

    Interesting read and a lot to unpack, though I would comment that the essence of both corruption and integrity are logically elemental to life, like two sides of the same coin and that the confusion is trying to see man as either fundamentally good, or bad, rather than unpacking how they cycle and feedback.
    Without the elemental sense of being a larger whole, i.e. integrity toward the other, not only would society never have evolved, but neither would complex, multicellular organisms.
    That they invariably break down and decay is a consequence, like up and down are two sides of the same relationship.
    Good and bad are not some cosmic dual between the forces of righteousness and evil, but the basic biological binary code of attraction to the beneficial and repulsion of the detrimental. Like yes and no to the mind and on and off to the machine.
    Yes, in many ways, we haven’t evolved morally, but is that due to being inherently evil, or simply a continued lack of understanding about how life functions?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi EJ, very novel subject… well done.

    To look at this critically, can one use one piece of fiction (and fragments at that) as a valid description of a long gone society? Given the account you gave how Satyricon came to us, couldn’t people (or even the original author) have imposed fictional relations between people to make the story what it is?

    Also, I’m uncertain why one can’t have a thoroughly capitalist system that is also primarily slave-based? This case against our idea of ancient Roman society was not completely developed.

    Finally, given your connection between a major character and Trump, as well as your thesis that humans have remained the same all these millennia, shouldn’t this sort of have us shrug (“what’s new?”) if Trump wins?

    ……….

    Note to Editors: I tried to “like” this essay as well as the last two and it seems to keep rejecting my selection, while my liking individual comments has gone through. I am now on a new computer and OS (previously I had no problems), and have tried to “like” essays with three different browser programs using the new system all to the same effect (nil). Not sure if there is anything you can do about it, but I wanted to let you know.

    Like

  4. DanK,
    Thanks much! A good question, I don’t have an answer to; although a quick search on the web reveals that the French slang term for an older gay man’s boy-toy, ‘giton,’ originated in the early 18th century, apparently derived from the character in the Satyricon; so it seems likely Sade was at least aware of the novel, which must have had a readership among the salon crowd back then.

    brodix,
    What if there’s just nothing to evolve here? What if the binary categorizations are simply to misread what is happening here?

    Like

  5. dbholmes,
    Literary sources generally tend to tell us far more about the shape and function of a culture than official documentation, because the authors are relieved of the burden of having to conform reality to conventional expectations. The very fact that one can have a pornographic comedy tells us much more about Rome than official documents would reveal to us. The ‘grandeur that was Rome’? Read Encolpius and Ascyltus chasing Giton’s tail through the back-alleys of the bordello district, and see if you can still believe in that!

    The slave-economy/ capitalism distinction is important iif you think that the principle ‘means of production’ .effectively determines the structure and functioning of the culture. I don’t. That’s part of my point here. For Marxist historiography to work, Rome’s ‘slave economy’ has to dominate, and its capitalism can only be primitive and incidental. But the Satyricon makes clear that it was neither, that the slave economy bled into the capitalist economy, which actually had more to do with how people saw themselves as citizens of Rome.

    “Finally, given your connection between a major character and Trump, as well as your thesis that humans have remained the same all these millennia, shouldn’t this sort of have us shrug (“what’s new?”) if Trump wins? ” Philosophically, that’s quite true. However, it would not be in my political interests (which are more immediate and practical, after all.)

    Like

  6. So? The alternative to something is nothing. Either the vacuum fluctuates, or it’s a flatline. If you take the position everything ultimately balances out and there is no sense bothering with anything, then you will just fold over and someone a little more motivated will have you for dinner. So the price we pay to feel in the first place is that a lot of it is pain.
    Life has “evolved” over the last few billion years and it’s my view we have further to go. Though my luck in trying to bring up and discuss different ways of looking at things is poor.
    We might well blow this chance, but life and the earth are fairly resilient. I think ultimately humanity, or some more intelligent life form, will come to terms with the limits of this planet and find ways to develop some degree of equilibrium.
    Capitalism is the economy as ecosystem, in which individual organisms come and go, while the larger system just fluctuates. As opposed to states which try to control the economy as a single organism and so build up and break down as single organisms.
    As such, we need to recognize the medium that allows this to function is the money and that is why it has to be understood as a public utility and trying to store large excesses would be like trying to store excess blood.
    Not necessarily as a single national or international currency, just the recognition that currency is a social contract and we own it like we own the section of road we are using.

    Like

  7. “If you take the position everything ultimately balances out and there is no sense bothering with anything, then you will just fold over and someone a little more motivated will have you for dinner. So the price we pay to feel in the first place is that a lot of it is pain.”

    brodix.
    I’m a Buddhist: all of it is pain.

    Buddhism is not for everybody; if you haven’t experienced this pain, good for you! But if you have, know that that the source of it is the will to have a Self Hegel gives us a good picture of how we build this Self. The Satyricon gives us a good picture of the Self unleashed. .

    The Fourth Noble Truth – the Eight-fold Path – gives us one way to alleviate the pain.

    DanK,
    While researching Sade, I found that at least one American writier professed Petronius as an important influence – William Burroughs. (I actually almost visited Burroughs in Lawrence Kansas; in 1986. However, he had draped his windows with black curtains, and I knew of his gun fetish, so I thought, ‘nah…’.

    Like

  8. ejwinner

    I’ve just been rereading our exchange regarding your previous piece on Hegel. There you said you would do a follow-up piece to clarify something you were saying there about seeing – or not seeing – knowledge as a totalistic whole.

    I suspect that, if this piece started out in this way, it evolved. I can relate better to what you are saying here than to what I took you to be saying in the previous piece. But again you are making claims for Hegel which I would want to question. For example, you write:

    “In order to have an ideology, we must confront external disagreements with and internal contradictions to our beliefs, which are then resolved and appropriated, negated and cancelled, or marginalized and ignored. We thus arrive at generalities that we comfortably assume are necessary and superior to those that came before. Hegel’s is not the only description of this process, but it is in many ways the most powerful.”

    I don’t want to push my own ideas inappropriately. But nor do I want to play down the differences between us.

    I am currently reading The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life by Robert Trivers. I know that evolutionary psychology is a pet hate of some people here. But this is where I go when I want to try to extend my understanding of ideology etc. and to complement my historical knowledge.

    I didn’t listen to all of the two previous Robert Wright interviews but I liked it that Wright was trying to relate thinkers of the past (like Hume or Kant) to recently-developed scientific ideas.

    Granted, ideological and historical questions are more difficult to deal with scientifically than questions relating to perception, but there is a large body of knowledge out there in social and evolutionary psychology which throws a lot of light on these issues.

    Like

  9. Mark English: Works like The Satyricon tell us more about ancient Roman civilization than Ev Psych ever will, no matter how much it develops. The question isn’t the credibility of the science; it’s whether the sort of understanding provided by the science is the type you are looking for, and in this case, it isn’t.

    Like

  10. Mark English: And re: Bob Wright, as you saw from the discussion, I find nothing interesting whatsoever in Ev Psych explanations of the sorts of things we were talking about, which is why I kept refusing to engage them, when he would throw them up.

    Like

  11. EJ,
    Pain does seem to come into sharper focus than pleasure. Consider though that often our attention is focused on the 10% of things that are going wrong, rather than the 90% of things necessarily going right, because it is the things going wrong that will get us hurt.
    Also that we are defined by what creates our boundaries, whether they are connections or impediments. Impediments can cause us pain, but than so can our connections, when they yank us off in directions we didn’t intend.
    Even what we might categorize as bad, such as promiscuity, financial corruption, etc. are desires, connections, hopes, etc, which cause problems on other levels.
    It is a balancing act on many levels, which is one of the reasons why we need to understand time is not some fundamental dimension and is no more linear than the earth is flat, or the sun is the one moving. Then we can better appreciate the circularity, equilibrium and feedback of nature, rather than thinking everything moves in the same direction and if we can get everyone believing the same things, it will cure our problems.
    We are not getting off this planet anytime soon and it would be better to see ourselves as within the cycles in this world, rather than knocking everything over for some premise of financial security. The system as we know it is about to crash, so some basic understanding of why and how these dynamics might be incorporated into our social belief systems might lead to a more stable environment. Instability is inherent to life, which is why we are constantly being born and die as individuals, but the overall ecosystem is able to sustain a fairly high degree of stability by all those forces and pressures creating an overall equilibrium.

    Like

  12. Hi EJ, point taken on the slave-economy/capitalism issue, and I agree a Trump win would not be in my political interests.

    I also agree to some extent with what you were saying about literature v. official documents. My problem was more that your essay seems to present Satyricon as an exception among literature from that time. So can a single such thing tell us much, or be granted such a weight. I can conceive a future where a work by Brett Easton Ellis survives but not much if anything else from artists that actually speak to my life experiences from this era. I wouldn’t want to grant any of his works such power. Whether good writing or capturing a piece of life in our society, it would be hard for me to agree it gave an accurate representation of relationships in our society (in general).

    I guess I also don’t have much problem with pornographic comedy or view such a thing’s existence as undercutting the glory of any society. I haven’t read Satyricon (though your essay may get me to). If what you describe is correct and the sexual pursuits are placed as running through back-alleys and treated as otherwise negative (the rakes being the butt of the jokes), that would tell me that Rome was more prudish than I would have expected. Only if it was celebrating such festivities as out in the open acceptable while depicting ascetics as comically prowling back alleys in search of purity would I take Rome to be largely pro-over the top-hedonistic.

    “I’m a Buddhist: all of it is pain. Buddhism is not for everybody; if you haven’t experienced this pain, good for you! But if you have, know that that the source of it is the will to have a Self…”

    This characterization of Buddhism seems in line with what I described in an earlier thread and Seth Leon criticized as not being representative. This is of course why Buddhism is not for me, it seems a bit of throwing the baby out with the bath water, or cutting of one’s nose to spite one’s face. A little too severe and overreacting. Though I don’t criticize people who choose this route.

    Like

  13. Mark English,
    I’m with DanK on both points. I haven’t read Trivers, but I read some reviews of the book, and it seems most of his main points can be argued without any reference to evolutionary biology. We have a genetic predisposition to deception/ self-deception? Well, so what? Did you know there are more than 1000 chemical compositions in coffee? Does this enhance the flavor for you, or make you want not to drink it? In what social contexts?

    Ideology, just as such, is not primarily a (self)deception, although it can become one (and usually risks falling apart when it does.) It is simply a set of stories we tell to make sense of the world around us. One problem here is that it is dangerous to assume that there is some non-ideological position from which ideology can be critiqued. To see that’s true, one doesn’t have to get post-modernist, since there are quite pragmatic reasons to accept conventional wisdom and knowledge, even if it is compliant with an ideology. It is simply the way the mind works in a social environment. For evolutionary reasons? again, so what? The question is, what works, and in what circumstances.There will always be stories we tell to understand the world. Evolution is a story we tell, and it seems to work; fine, let’s keep telling it. Buddhism is a story I’ve adopted because it works for me, so I guess I’ll keep telling it until it doesn’t..

    dbholmes,
    Frankly, when brodix discusses good and evil, or when you raise the question of prudishness vs, hedonism in the context of my essay, I am somewhat baffled. Petronius’ characters aren’t evil, and they are not hedonistic in opposition to any prudery, although there were undoubtedly moral prudes among the Romans, including several emperors (including, famously, Augustus). They are simply a set of people who are living through a certain undercurrent of Roman society. There were other undercurrents, and there were other writers speaking for those undercurrents – the most important such undercurrent, as it later developed, was that of the Christian middle-class, which finally came to dominate the empire in its later years. (There was no ‘Byzantine Empire,’ the Byzantines considered themselves the Eastern Roman Empire and were rather miffed when Charlemagne assumed the Imperial crown of the West without consulting them.) ‘Good,’ ‘evil,’ ‘prudish,’ ‘hedonistic’ – these frames do not actually help us see a culture whole, nor help us understand how its participants see themselves. I’m not sure its useful to pass judgment on the culture of Roman, since this implies we enjoy some privileged cultural position from which to do so. (Death occurred quite frequently among gladiators in the arena; very rarely do we see it in the professional wrestling ring or a football game, but the motives in attending to each appear quite similar. In the George Hamilton film, Evel Knievel, Knievel remarks that he realized that people attended car races largely hoping to see an accident.}

    Is the Satyricon the exceptional text in Roman literature? No; actually it is an extreme example of a certain set of texts of satire and social commentary popular in Rome (but largely ignored by the Senatorial class that governed the empire), but I wasn’t presenting it as such an exception, although, I personally find it exceptionally sharp, energetic, and funny among such texts. And the culminating effect of it – and of the texts like it – is to rip a hole through traditional narratives of Roman culture: a hole wide enough so that we can see ourselves in their mirrors.

    But in discussing the usefulness of a literary text in regard of intellectual history, there just isn’t the necessity – and given the space available here, the possibility – of giving the kind of survey/ overview you seem to be asking for. The point I’m trying to make is that the Satyrican presents evidence that the generalities of traditional historic explanation have not been able to include such literature in their explanations, because it is counter-factual to their assumptions of progress. It doesn’t have to be a kind of cultural/ behavioral exemplar in order to accomplish this, it merely needs to exist.

    Liked by 3 people

  14. EJ, great text. Thanks a lot. Shines a new light on the Satyricon, a text we had to translate when I was in college (secondary education, high school, whatever you call it in the US).

    “But more importantly, the people, as we find them in the Satyricon, are completely like ourselves.”

    After all those years, I still relish the feeling I had when I understood this: these people are completely like ourselves. I had the same feeling when we translated Catullus. I went to a catholic school, an “episcopal college”, but they made us read those texts and stubbornly refused to be moralizing about them.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Hi EJ, fair enough, given your reply most of this just seems to be a slight miscommunication.

    The essay itself seemed to suggest the Satyricon was a single piece of evidence of that kind, but if you meant to use it as a singular “best example” then that clears things up.

    And I only brought up the prude/hedonist angle due to your reply which seemed to suggest events in Satyricon meant Rome was not so “pure”. The specific line which got me thinking that was: “The ‘grandeur that was Rome’? Read Encolpius and Ascyltus chasing Giton’s tail through the back-alleys of the bordello district, and see if you can still believe in that!” Maybe its me but that seems to tie grandeur with some sort of moral/sexual purity.

    My point was simply that such an episode in a work of art (even if representative of things that went on) would not necessarily detract from the “grandeur of Rome”.

    As a side issue, I tried to “like” your essay and this last reply. My new computer system seems to be preventing this. Strange enough it at least allowed me to like replies (if not essays) yesterday. Now I seem cutoff even from replies too.

    Don’t take my “criticism” too seriously. I thought it was a fine piece and only had some slight nagging questions. Shouldn’t get hung up on those.

    Like

  16. Daniel Kaufman

    “Works like The Satyricon tell us more about ancient Roman civilization than Ev Psych ever will, no matter how much it develops. The question isn’t the credibility of the science; it’s whether the sort of understanding provided by the science is the type you are looking for, and in this case, it isn’t.”

    I’m perfectly happy with this. I don’t think scientific psychology can add much to the knowledge and pleasure we get from reading literary works.

    Philosophical works, however, especially those which deal with the same sorts of questions which our sciences address and especially those which draw on or reflect the science of their time are, I believe, usefully seen in the light of our science.

    ejwinner

    “I haven’t read Trivers, but I read some reviews of the book, and it seems most of his main points can be argued without any reference to evolutionary biology. We have a genetic predisposition to deception/self-deception? Well, so what?”

    It is not that we have such a predisposition which is interesting, it is the precise nature of that predisposition and the social and psychological mechanisms which drive it. There are certain things insightful people can intuit, and certain things which only scientifically-based theorizing and research can reveal.

    “Ideology, just as such, is not primarily a (self)deception, although it can become one (and usually risks falling apart when it does.)”

    I can accept the first part, I think, but the parenthetical claim seems to be an empirical one – and I am not sure it is true.

    “It is simply a set of stories we tell to make sense of the world around us. One problem here is that it is dangerous to assume that there is some non-ideological position from which ideology can be critiqued.”

    To a point I accept this.

    “To see that’s true, one doesn’t have to get post-modernist, since there are quite pragmatic reasons to accept conventional wisdom and knowledge, even if it is compliant with an ideology. It is simply the way the mind works in a social environment. For evolutionary reasons? again, so what?”

    I don’t quite know what you mean here about accepting conventional wisdom and knowledge for pragmatic reasons. (Also, I was talking about evolutionary *and social* psychology.)

    “The question is, what works, and in what circumstances.There will always be stories we tell to understand the world. Evolution is a story we tell, and it seems to work; fine, let’s keep telling it. Buddhism is a story I’ve adopted because it works for me, so I guess I’ll keep telling it until it doesn’t.”

    If you are claiming that the theory of evolution (or any soundly-based body of science) does not represent objective (albeit provisional and incomplete) knowledge, then I strongly disagree with you.

    Like

  17. I would argue that subjective/objective is not the interesting question, regarding evolutionary accounts of complex matters of culture. The question is whether reductive approaches are useful and thus, called for, and I think that they are not.

    Also, there isn’t any such thing as “objective knowledge.” All epistemic qualities are framework relative. But that’s neither here nor there with respect to this issue.

    Like

  18. Dan

    “… [T]here isn’t any such thing as “objective knowledge.””

    I don’t want to get hung up on the phrase (Popper used it). Of course all claims require a framework. But some claims are more soundly based than others. The basic principles of scientific research and activity can help us here.

    ” …regarding evolutionary accounts of complex matters of culture… The question is whether reductive approaches are useful and thus, called for, and I think that they are not.”

    This depends, I think, on what “complex matters of culture” you are interested in and why. If you are interested in French 18th-century gardens, say, or the social and cultural milieu in which Petronius was operating, or the arts generally, I agree there is no real reason to read up on evolutionary biology or cognitive science.

    Liked by 2 people

  19. Mark English,
    The theory of evolution coordinates and explains an enormous number of phenomena, from certain cellular mutations to the extinction of species, to rocks in the shapes of animals (fossils). No creationist narrative makes so complete an accounting. So evolution ‘works’ in the way that no creationism has (or probably even can). Does that make it the ‘absolute truth’? No; but it will do until we bump into phenomena of similar order to what it does explain, that it doesn’t explain. At which point we will need to tell a different story.

    Like

  20. There is sometimes temptation with progressives (or those who think themselves progressives) to paint history in darker colours, and bigger brushstrokes, to make current triumphs appear greater. Rome at its height was surprisingly modern, in good and bad. Lucian of Samosata is another great people-observer, about a century later than Petronius. His commentary on Salaethus of Croton also brings in mind some US politicians.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Mark English & Dan K. – Just a note on “objective knowledge”. Popper used the term differently from how many do. He used it to describe knowledge (i.e., an hypothesis) as object. Knowledge becomes objective when you say it out loud or, better, write it down. Then it exists outside of your mind, and is open for anyone to see and criticize; it is objective in this sense. Others use it to mean knowledge that is somehow free of all subjective bias, which is not what Popper was talking about. I would also note that for Popper, truth was not a necessary characteristic of knowledge. This is one reason why objective knowledge, which can be criticized and modified, is important.

    Like

  22. August West

    Yes, he did use the phrase in this way. But I think you also have to bear in mind that Popper was a scientific realist and explicitly rejected various forms of relativism and subjectivism. He saw Tarski as having in effect rehabilitated the correspondence theory of truth.

    This is from the penultimate chapter of his book Objective Knowledge:

    “… As a realist I look upon logic as the organon of criticisms (rather than of proof) in our search for true and highly informative theories – or at least for new theories that contain more information, and correspond better to the facts, than our older theories. And I look upon criticism, in its turn, as our main instrument in promoting the growth of our knowledge about the world of facts.”

    Like