June 01, 2004

Revenge of the Greeks

Posted by Curt at 05:15 PM in Sports | TrackBack

It’s something of a mystery to me how a magazine with political editorializing as craven and sectarian as The Weekly Standard’s is able to not infrequently dig up excellent pieces of general cultural criticism, like this piece on Greek athletics. The author wins some easy points by observing, for example, that:

“The idea that the ancient games were apolitical celebrations of amateurism, for instance, is an invention of the late Victorians, who projected their idealizations of the Greeks back onto a reality that was as obsessed with money and prestige as our own times.”

It is especially amusing to me that he actually calculates out the amount that some athletes were able to earn from the more high-paying competitions, such as one competitor who supposedly earned the equivalent of $44 million during the course of his career. I suspect that the means of arriving at this sum is nowhere near sophisticated enough to accurately yield a sum this precise, but nevertheless it is useful for exposing the fatuousness of the envy-disguised-as-virtue of those who cannot stand the thought of others earning so much more than them and cloak this envy in the fradulent cult of amateurism which is supposed to have defined sports since the days of ancient Greece. As I have said before, whether or not it is “fair” that certain athletes earn so much more money than, say, elementary school teachers is totally irrelevant, as athletic compensation, unlike teacher compensation, is not at all coercive or publicly mandated, but rather simply a factor of people’s personal preferences about where they wish to distribute their money. There is even some meritocratic justification for this state of affairs, as only the best athletes become wealthy, whereas every teacher (apart from professors) is essentially paid equally.

Anyway, back to the article. This puncturing of the phony moral purity of amateur sports and the Greek athletic tradition is well-taken, but not a very profound point. Here is the true awakening paragraph of the article:

“None of the ancient competitive events involved team sports. Only individuals competed against other individuals, the athlete depending solely on his own ability and drive to win the crown that would be denied to all the rest—which is, one recalls, the universal condition of the leading characters in the tragic plays that filled the Greek stage. Greek tragedy always presents the isolated protagonist who must bear alone the burden of trying to achieve and then living with the unforeseen consequences of that success and the high cost of his aspirations.”

This is really a significant point, and one I don’t think I have ever heard articulated in quite this way. As much as people blather about our supposed American hyper-individualism, if this point about Greek athletics is true, as I suspect that it is, in sports as well perhaps as in other realms the Greeks glorified individuality far more than us, for while a Greek charioteer, for instance, represented his city, he also competed by and for himself, with all the responsbility of success or failure lodged solely upon his head. In so many of our sports, by contrast, we relentlessly emphasize the preeminence of the team, the group, the herd, to which every thing must be subordinated. I am not sure what the relative values of these two models are, but being a misanthrope myself, and having throughout my childhood been quite torn between my love of sports and my frequent loathing for teammates with whom I was supposed to cooperate and for whom I was supposed to sacrifice myself, it is encouraging to think that perhaps once upon a time individualism was the founding philosophy of sports rather than virtually the antithesis of its ideals.

On the other hand, I am pretty dubious about the author’s subsidiary point that this apotheosis of individual achievement represented an “aristocratic” temperament in Greek society which conflicted with the “radical egalitarianism” which arose during this period and led to the birth of democracy. Even putting aside the minor point that democracy was a purely Athenian institution and hence this “conflict” probably did not even exist on a societal level for the vast majority of Greeks, I am fairly suspicious about the idea of either the use of sports as a metaphor for elitism or its conflict with “egalitarianism.” In defense of his thesis about athletic individualism as a manifestation of aristocratic distinction, he claims:

“In ancient Athens, athletic competition embodied the conflicted feelings the non-nobles had for the aristocrats. On the one hand, the nobles, though possessing no more political power than the masses, nonetheless retained the glamour and allure of unique achievement and excellence owed not to law or procedure but to sheer superiority.”

I do not see how “unique achievement and excellence owed not to law or procedure but to sheer superiority” can at all be construed as “aristocratic” distinction. In fact, artistocratic distinctions seem to me to be inherently “owed…to law or procedure”; the converse of this would be a true meritocracy, which seems much less threatening to the notion of equality, unless one presumes that all achievement, all “superiority,” is a result of purely genetic endowment or divine ordinance. On the other hand, if one believes in the innate equality of all men, it is perfectly easy to reconcile this view with the idea of meritocratic superiority, because if all are created equal, all acheivements must be the result of the indvidual’s striving, not of some inherited talents. I myself am at all sure of the merits of the idea of fundamental equality or whether human achievements are primarily a result simply of inherited factors, but the point is that the sheer existence of meritocratic distinction and the idea of fundamental equality are not contradictory.

I also find this contention by the author extremely silly:

“A consequence of egalitarianism is a leveling of the citizens, a reduction of the distinctions based on talent and ability that give the lie to absolute equality. So relentless is this process that in Athens, Plato only half-joked, “horses and asses have a way of marching along with all the rights and dignities of freemen.”“

The obvious question is, if egalitarianism really can cause “a reduction of…distinctions based on talent and ability,” than how is it that the existence of these distinctions “give[s] the lie to absolute equality”? Assuming that we discard the spurious qualifier “absolute,” which the author seems to throw in as a straw man to make egalitarianism seem more ridiculous, it would seem to me that if egalitarianism really does erode meritocratic distinctions, then it is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and hence is not “given the lie” to by those distinctions which for the most part no longer exist. So the author wants to have it both ways, but in reality it would seem that either egalitarianism really can erode distinction, in which case it is not contradicted by any cold, hard realities of the world, or it does not, in which case it is hardly a threat to the very concept of distinction, as Plato, Aristotle (and the article author) seem to think it is.

Of course, although he argues against egalitarianism on the basis of its supposed inefficacity, like people who do not eat meat because they think it is immoral but try to sell vegetarianism to others based on its supposed health benefits, I suspect the real objection the author has to egalitarianism is not that he thinks it will not work but because he, like probably the majority of the readership of The Weekly Standard, thinks some people simply are superior to others and that society should be stratified accordingly. Of course, he doesn’t actually have the courage to say this, other than quoting Plato about “horses and asses…marching along with all the rights and dignities of freemen.” Neverthless, when he claims at the end that he finds it to be a “tragic truth” that “We all aren’t winners, and we all don’t deserve prizes,” I find this lament to be all crocodile tears. I don’t think that he finds this “truth” at all tragic; I think that he thinks that this is exactly as things should be.


So Curt ... are all men created equal, or do all men exist within some unseen hierarchy in reality?

Posted by: The Serpent at June 2, 2004 09:22 AM

I'm inclined to reject the dichotomy, because I cannot think of a single standard by which one could judge the entirety of a person's existence.

Posted by: Curt at June 2, 2004 03:38 PM

Well, let me ask you this question then ...

Are all animal species equal (i.e. "the same"?) or is there a hierarchy of animal species in reality?

If you agree that there is a hierarchy of species, then why would you assume that there was not a hierarchy within a species?

Posted by: The Serpent at June 3, 2004 09:59 AM

I am not denying the possibility of an inter- or intraspecial hierarchy; I am simply questioning what criterion one would use for ranking living beings. Intelligence? Virtue? What?

Posted by: Curt at June 3, 2004 03:42 PM

If you are asking for my opinion on the matter, then I would have to say “Virtue”.

Where those who are most-beneficial (to other individuals) would be most virtuous.

They would have the most-power over the most-individuals. In other words, they would occupy a higher position in the hierarchy.

Of course those who are most-harmful could generate the illusion of power by not harming (i.e. a weaker form of “benefit”).

Posted by: The Serpent at June 3, 2004 03:52 PM

So according to you virtue is no more than utility and utility is no more than an instrument by which to gain power over others?

Posted by: Curt at June 3, 2004 08:02 PM

Curt: So according to you virtue is no more than utility and utility is no more than an instrument by which to gain power over others?

I believe it would be more accurate to say:

Virtue is the act of being beneficial to others. (the cause)

And Power is a consequence of virtue. (the effect)

Posted by: The Serpent at June 4, 2004 09:47 AM

But it is equally obvious that this is no way to evaluate more than a part of a man's life.

Posted by: Curt at June 4, 2004 04:21 PM

I'm not sure I follow what you mean?

You can evaluate a consciousness by its species (classification) correct? I am merely suggesting an extension of that principle.

Posted by: The Serpent at June 7, 2004 09:44 AM