Monday, January 19, 2009

The Choice of Herakles

A dialogue, from The Memorabilia, or Recollections of Socrates, by Xenophon, translated by H.G. Dakyns:

I. Duty, or Virtue:
"I will not cheat you with preludings of pleasure, but I will relate to you the things that are according to the ordinances of God in very truth. Know then that among things that are lovely and of good report, not one have the gods bestowed upon mortal men apart from toil and pains. Would you obtain the favour of the gods, then must you pay these same gods service; would you be loved by your friends, you must benefit these friends; do you desire to be honoured by the state, you must give the state your aid; do you claim admiration for your virtue from all Hellas, you must strive to do some good to Hellas; do you wish earth to yield her fruits to you abundantly, to earth must you pay your court; do you seek to amass riches from your flocks and herds, on them must you bestow your labour; or is it your ambition to be potent as a warrior, able to save your friends and to subdue your foes, then must you learn the arts of war from those who have the knowledge, and practise their application in the field when learned; or would you e'en be powerful of limb and body, then must you habituate limbs and body to obey the mind, and exercise yourself with toil and sweat."

II. Happiness, or Vice:
"I see you, Heracles, in doubt and difficulty what path of life to choose; make me your friend, and I will lead you to the pleasantest road and easiest. This I promise you: you shall taste all of life's sweets and escape all bitters. In the first place, you shall not trouble your brain with war or business; other topics shall engage your mind; your only speculation, what meat or drink you shall find agreeable to your palate; what delight of ear or eye; what pleasure of smell or touch; what darling lover's intercourse shall most enrapture you; how you shall pillow your limbs in softest slumber; how cull each individual pleasure without alloy of pain; and if ever the suspicion steal upon you that the stream of joys will one day dwindle, trust me I will not lead you where you shall replenish the store by toil of body and trouble of soul. No! others shall labour, but you shall reap the fruit of their labours; you shall withhold your hand from nought which shall bring you gain. For to all my followers I give authority and power to help themselves freely from every side."

III. Duty, or Virtue:
"Nay, wretched one, what good thing hast thou? or what sweet thing art thou acquainted with—that wilt stir neither hand nor foot to gain it? Thou, that mayest not even await the desire of pleasure, but, or ever that desire springs up, art already satiated; eating before thou hungerest, and drinking before thou thirsteth; who to eke out an appetite must invent an army of cooks and confectioners; and to whet thy thirst must lay down costliest wines, and run up and down in search of ice in summer-time; to help thy slumbers soft coverlets suffice not, but couches and feather-beds must be prepared thee and rockers to rock thee to rest; since desire for sleep in thy case springs not from toil but from vacuity and nothing in the world to do."

* * *

The long and fevered pursuit of Happiness we have followed in this country for many years is over. We have woken with a start from our beguiling dreams of effortless success, enduring fame, and endless wealth, nursing a raging hangover. Before us lies the dispiriting vision of a steep and stony road out of a dim and drear valley.

Many have speculated on the various reasons we have come to this pass. Commentators, spectators, and participants all flog their pet theories, and the only thing more certain than their pointing of fingers at every culprit they can imagine is that virtually no-one is pointing his finger at himself.

But the moralist in me—repressed, ignored, and ridiculed most of the time, I grant you—begs to differ.

It has been a long time in this country since the ideals of sacrifice, honor, courage, and integrity were both admired and aspired to by the common man. (These words sound so dusty and awkward that I am almost—almost—embarrassed to write them here.) What is admired now is fame and its idiot cousin, celebrity, and wealth and its bastard offspring, money-for-nothing. How else can you explain the millions of column inches wasted on the vapid self-promotion of a brainless, talentless, beauty-less hotel "heiress?" Or the fact that Steve Schwarzman is mostly known outside financial circles for the egregiously self-congratulatory 60th birthday party he threw to crown himself the new King of Wall Street?

Sure, we make an occasional nod to the old virtues, like when we applaud the tense and wary knots of servicemen and women passing through an airport on our way to a Disneyland vacation or a billion-dollar closing dinner. We know we are supposed to admire such things, and the people who embody them. At some level most of us probably do. But what have we Americans sacrificed lately? When did you last act with honor, courage, or integrity?

Much is made by everyone about the greed and rampant, unbridled speculation that convulsed Wall Street over the last several years. Billions, if not trillions, of dollars were squandered in pursuit of ever-increasing bonuses for bankers and ever-increasing profits for shareholders (many of whom were the very same bankers in charge of the asylum). Of this, there can be no doubt. But these bankers did not act in a vacuum. Everyone who purchased a stock, or mortgaged a house, or took out a home equity line over the last seven years helped inflate the bubble which continues to burst.

Do not plead ignorance to me. No matter how far you were from the centers of finance, did you really believe it was your God-given right to enjoy 20+% annual price appreciation in your cookie-cutter Vegas mini-mansion? Did you really think it was clever or even prudent to treat your home like an ATM, withdrawing cash every quarter to purchase the cars, clothes, and plasma televisions your bog-standard middle management job wouldn't allow you to afford? Really?

I didn't think so. Just as all those rich pals of Bernie Madoff knew, at some level, that something just wasn't right with his year-in, year-out 10–12% returns, come hell or high water. But they took the plunge anyway. Who wouldn't want into a sure thing, even if it smelled to high heaven? Who, indeed, would turn down money for nothing?

* * *

Well, the days of the apparently free lunch seem well and truly over. Masters of the Universe face the prospect of working for years just to get back to breakeven, much less earn performance fees, and Titans of Wall Street are busy helping the Missus shop for bulk toilet paper at Costco, if they are not testifying in bankruptcy court.

Tomorrow, we will witness the swearing-in of the first black President of the United States. Many of us in this country voted for this man under the rubric of change. Most of those who voted for his opponent advocated change, as well. But now that we have it, just what sort of change have we voted for? Do we even know?

I don't know, and I refuse to make any predictions about this administration or the next few years in our economy. But what I will say is that the change we should be looking for—the change that will ultimately make a lasting difference in our country, our economy, and our lives—better come first from within.

It is not too late to take the high and stony road to Virtue. It is not too late to remind ourselves what it means to exercise restraint, to celebrate the old virtue of simple competence when we undertake a job. To do well, to work hard, because it is our job; to take pride in a job well-done, not because we think we're going to win the lottery. It is also time, in my humble opinion, for integrity to replace unprincipled greed, for humility and modesty to replace hubris, and for honor and courage to replace opportunism. The good news—and the hard news, as well—is that all of you get to make your own decision on the subject.

And there, Dear Readers, is the rub. For, in the immortal words of Pogo:

"We have met the enemy and he is us."

© 2009 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.