Saturday 25 February 2017

Plutarch on post truth


And why should any one be astonished that men of wanton life lose no occasion for offering up sacrifices, as it were, of contumelious abuse of their superiors, to the evil deity of popular envy...?      To such degree, it seems, is truth hedged about with difficulty and hard to capture by research, since those who come after the events in question find that lapse of time is an obstacle to their proper perception of them; while the research of their contemporaries into men's deeds and lives, partly through envious hatred and partly through fawning flattery, defiles and distorts the truth.

Plutarch, Pericles, 13 (here) (Greek text: here)

Quanquam quid attinet admirari homines instituto vitae satyricos, quique obtrectationes potentium invidiae vulgi, tanquam alcui malo genio, consecrare solerent...? Adeo difficilis investigatu res est historia vera, cum posterioribus praeteritum tempus, cognitionem rerum praeripiat, qui vero aequales sunt ejus, cujus vitam aut actum describunt, ii partim invidia odioque, partim gratificandi studio et adulatione corrupti, veritati officiant.

(Latin translation p192 here)

Notable for the tendency relatively absent in modern discussions to attribute the difficulty in finding truth largely to personal vices. Again, there is an emphasis on the general bad character (rather than occasional loss of control) of those standing in the way of truth, as well as a hint of idolatrous worship of the δαίμονι κακῷ/malo genio ('evil deity'). Moreover the role of 'fawning flattery' is raised: I suspect the role of this desire to please others is an often overlooked part of online dogpiles. (The phrase 'virtue signalling' for example emphasises our expressiveness rather than trying to please the person(s) signalled to.) And, of course, no modern discussion would countenance the idea that much of this is directed against those above us in an objectively existing hierarchy: the Greek uses the word 'blasphemy' (τὰς κατὰ τῶν κρειττόνων βλασφημίας).

The point of quoting this...? Well, the general suspicion that viewing the present through the prism of antiquity can provide a healthy corrective to our own smallmindedness. (And providing a Latin translation...? It's incredibly unlikely that we're ever going to recover the level of familiarity with Greek that previously existed amongst educated people. But a certain familiarity with Latin and a willingness to get more I suspect is achievable, certainly among Catholics. So here's a stone in that particular cairn.)

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