Monday, August 01, 2005

From Thucydides

The election is long over. No matter how much some poor saps try to deny it, Bush beat Kerry. Kerry backers throughout the world have questioned and continue to question the intelligence of President Bush and those (like me) who voted for him. The conventional wisdom on the left, before Kerry's grades from Yale were released, was that Kerry, unlike that dopey G.W. Bush was an intellectual heavyweight. Kerry certainly believed it when he said,
I can't believe I'm losing to this idiot.
I'm sure Kerry and his supporters still believe he's smarter.

I bring this up because I just finished reading Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. And I found an interesting quote from 2500 years ago that rings true today. As you read it, think of that genius Kerry, and the Rhodes Scholar, Bill Clinton.

According to Cleon, who was taking part in the Mytilenian Debate, in book 3 of History of the Peloponnesian War by the Greek historian Thudydides, translated by Rex Warner (copyright 1954), and published by Penguin Classics:
And this is the very worst thing - to pass measures and then not to abide by them. We should realize that a city is better off with bad laws, so long as they remain fixed than with good laws that are constantly being altered, that lack of learning combined with sound common sense is more helpful than the kind of cleverness that gets out of hand, and that as a general rule states are better governed by the man in the street than by intellectuals. These are the sort of people who want to appear wiser than the laws, who want to get their own way in every general discussion because they feel that they cannot show off their intelligence in matters of greater importance, and who, as result, very often bring ruin on their country. But the other kind - the people who are not so confident in their own intelligence - are prepared to admit that the laws are wiser than they are and that they lack the ability to pull to pieces a speech made by a good speaker; they are biased judges, and not people taking part in some kind of competition; so things usually go well when they are in control. We statesmen, too, should try to be like them, instead of being carried away by mere cleverness and a desire to show off our intelligence and so giving you, the people, advice which we do not really believe in ourselves.
As an interesting comparison, Thomas Hobbes also translated Thucydides. His translation of the same passage reads:
But the worst mischief of all is this, that nothing we decree shall stand firm, and that we will not know, that a city with the worse laws, if immoveable, is better than one with good laws, when they be not binding; and that a plain wit accompanied with modesty, is more profitable to the state than dexterity with arrogance; and that the more ignorant sort of men do, for the most part, better regulate a commonwealth than they that are wiser. For these love to appear wiser than the laws, and in all public debatings to carry the victory, as the worthiest things wherein to show their wisdom; from whence most commonly proceedeth the ruin of the states they live in. Whereas the other sort, mistrusting their own wits, are content to be esteemed not so wise as the laws, and not able to carp at what is well spoken by another: and so making themselves equal judges rather than contenders for mastery, govern a state for the most part well. We therefore should do the like; and not be carried away with combats of eloquence and wit, to give such counsel to your multitude as in our own judgments we think not good.
Either way you translate it, this rings true. Also, as economists Thomas Sowell and Milton Friedman have pointed out, keeping stable laws is better for our economic well-being.

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