Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Recipe for Mediocrity

Readers of Herodotus will remember the story that he tells in his fifth book about the lesson that Periander, the tyrant of Corinth, learned from Thrasybulus, the tyrant of Miletus:
Having sent a herald to Thrasybulus, he inquired what was the safest way to establish affairs and the best way to administer the city. Thrasybulus led Periander's messenger out of the city, and entering into a sown field. As they went through the crop he kept asking the herald about the situation in Corinth, and he was always cutting off the individual grain stalks that excelled, and having cut them down cast them away, until the best and finest of the field was ruined in this manner. Having gone through the country and saying nothing by way of advice, he sent the herald away. (Herodotus 5.92)
Since Thrasybulus said nothing, the herald understood nothing.
But Periander understood what needed to be done. It was clear to him that Thrasybulus recommended that he kill anyone who excelled in the city. (Herodotus 5.92).
 This Periander proceeded to do, inflicting the worst things he could imagine on his citizens.

Tyrants (the English term is simply the Greek term for king) often employ similar measures. Anyone who excels in any way is disposed of. Some do it by overtaxing the wealthiest citizens, others by getting rid of anyone who rises to national or international prominence. It is a way of keeping everyone in the middle, being neither very good nor very bad. If people just stay in the middle of their walk of life everything flows smoothly for the manager.

Unfortunately, since no one is very good, everyone is rather mediocre. That way the tyrant is the only one who appears to excel, despite his own mediocrity (sometimes these managers do not even rise to the level of mediocre). One thinks, for example, of Ramses III, constructing his window of appearance at the temple of Medinet Habu so that he stands with his feet just above the heads of the crowd. The populace were all beneath him.

If we rid ourselves of all that are exceptional, it will be no surprise that only the mediocre survive.