Ottawa Citizen
July 2, 2004 Friday Final Edition

For argument's sake, draw your own analogies

by John Robson


When the Athenian statesman Phocion gave a speech that the public
applauded, Plutarch claims, he turned to some friends and asked, "Have
I inadvertently said something foolish?" How many politicians would
ever have such a reaction today? Yet how many should? I sure missed
Plutarch during this election.

For one thing, I treasure his anecdote of Cato the Elder who, told it
was odd that there was no monument to him in Rome, said he would far
rather have people ask why he didn't have a statue than why he did.
What a useful standard by which to judge the personal qualities of
politicians. When Bill Clinton claims in his memoirs that "in politics,
if you don't toot your own horn, it usually stays untooted" you might
reasonably conclude that, in Cato's situation, he would have put one up
himself.

Some readers may be puzzled by my periodic tendency to enthuse about
some author who wrote long before Jennifer Lopez's first marriage; if
so I reply that it is not a boast to find nothing interesting in books.
(Or quote American commentator Florence King that in high school "the
girls who recited Mickey Rooney's wives in the cafeteria made fun of me
for reciting Henry VIII's wives in history class ...")

All argument is in some sense argument by analogy: This thing is like
that thing, it is not like that other thing, it is more like this thing
than like that, and so on. But if we do not carry around with us a
supply of material suitable for the drawing of analogies, what sort of
reasoning is likely to result? That's why Plutarch wrote The Lives of
the Noble Grecians and Romans.

A person without knowledge of the past is liable to react to a promise
of free money the same way Homer Simpson reacts to the word "doughnut."
Would it not be better instead to flinch as George Washington would
have at any political program reminiscent of Rome's "bread and
circuses" for the urban mob? Or recall another Plutarch story about
Cato the Elder: "Being once desirous to dissuade the common people of
Rome from their unseasonable and impetuous clamour for largesses and
distributions of corn, he began thus to harangue them: 'It is a
difficult task, O citizens, to make speeches to the belly, which has no
ears.'"

Paul Martin would have been well-advised a year ago to ponder
Plutarch's report that Pompey the Great once had the chance "to lead
Tigranes, King of Armenia, in triumph," but "chose rather to make him a
confederate of the Romans, saying that a single day was worth less than
all future time."

My admiration for Plutarch is not uncritical. He likes the Spartans too
much, and unfairly casts Marc Antony as too besotted with Cleopatra to
attend to affairs of the state. But it's interesting to see him praise
Cleopatra's personality and intellect over her raw physical beauty, and
slam Julius Caesar, who "looking upon all changes and commotions in the
state as materials useful for his own purposes, desired rather to
increase than extinguish them ..."

Perhaps his correspondingly high opinion of Caesar's assassin Brutus is
overdone. But it would be nice to have some sort of opinion on Brutus
that doesn't also involve Popeye the sailor man. Lest you smell dust
here, I promise that Plutarch is also full of intrigue, illicit sex and
gruesome violence. For instance, the orator Cicero, who backed Brutus,
was assassinated and, on the orders of Marc Antony, his head and hands
were severed, brought to Rome, and "fastened up over the rostra, where
the orators spoke; a sight which the Roman people shuddered to behold,
and they believed they saw there, not the face of Cicero, but the image
of Antony's own soul." A useful anecdote to have whenever someone
triumphantly waves an enemy's head in public.

Plutarch also records that Phocion once "answered King Antipater, who
sought his approbation of some unworthy action, 'I cannot be your
flatterer, and your friend.'" And he advises the politically ambitious
likewise to "answer the people, 'I cannot govern and obey you.'" Of
course anyone who did so might not win, but hey, most candidates lose
anyway. (Besides, Cato the Younger once lost an election for consul,
declined to run again because the people obviously didn't want him, and
happily went on with his life.) And it would surely raise the level of
debate to go about dismissing people as "another Lepidus" or hailing
them as "a second Brutus" instead of wracking our brains trying to
remember who was in Joe Clark's cabinet. Speaking of people who should
certainly have spent more time asking friends if they'd inadvertently
said something foolish.

John Robson's column appears Wednesday and Friday. Listen to him
weeknights from 8 to 10 on CFRA 580 AM.