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Works and Days

Modern Wisdom from Ancient Minds

December 17th, 2012 - 11:58 pm

As far as beauty goes, what is so attractive about either the perfect Stepford wives’ look or the starved model appearance? From red-figure vase painting to Rubens, Western tastes have appreciated curves, not lines. Where did the new beauty profile come from that is abnormal and usually achieved only through surgery: 5’ 10” females, weighing 120 lbs., with micro-waists and huge breasts and rears, as if more than 1% of the population is born that way? Ovid also reminds us that, on occasion, a blemish can mesmerize the beholder, in the way perhaps Cleopatra’s ample nose incited Caesar and Antony. I used to find the actress Sandy Dennis’s uncorrected overbite appealing in the way I don’t find today’s oversized, bleached, spot-lighted, and perfectly capped choppers inviting. A mole for the Greeks should not be removed. The classics remind us that a small defect is no defect at all. Forty years ago, I once knew an undergraduate with a scar running across her chin, maybe six inches in length, and a few millimeters wide. It was hypnotic. And what happened to the classical emphases on voice, comportment, grace, and gesture as ingredients of beauty? Have they simply fallen by the wayside in our boobs/butt obsessed popular culture? Are there voice or posture classes anymore, or has it become all liposuction and implants?

Hoi Aristoi/Polloi

Admittedly, classical literature is aristocratic, at least in the sense that the well-read and learned had more money than those whom they often wrote about. But that said, it is striking how frequently over a thousand years of Greek and Latin masterpieces arise words like “mob” (ochlos) and “throng” (turba) to describe the herd-like desire for entitlements without worry as to how they were to be funded. Virgil (vulgus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur) and Horace (Odi profanum vulgus et arceo) would assume that even the Wall Street Journal is not read at Super Wal-Mart. (But be careful: at a local electric motor shop, the two Hispanic mechanics/owners once asked me how I would rate Peter Green’s Alexander the Great — and then cited four other biographies — while I was waiting to have a motor rewound.)

Alexis de Tocqueville put forth a thesis that American democracy had a chance because the small-scale entrepreneur (see above) and autonomous, self-reliant agrarian were not so prone to the Siren-calls of the European mob. He felt that we in American would not perhaps follow the model of the fourth-century Athenian dêmos or imperial Roman vulgus that flocked to the cities for the dole, and hated the wealthy the more they taxed them (don’t think Obama will be happy with just raising rates on “millionaires”) — as if the ability to pay high taxes was always proof of the ability to pay even more. Tocqueville derived that pessimistic view from Aristotle whose best democracy was a politeia — rule by owners of some property, who were largely agrarian and self-reliant, and did not expect subsidies from others. Classics, then, teach us to beware a situation when 47% of the population do not pay income taxes and nearly half of us receive federal and state subsidies. Perhaps we should go over the cliff so that the 53% all understand the burdens of higher taxes to subsidize the 47% who pay no income taxes. If we hike taxes on those who make over $1 million a year, then cannot we not insist that everyone pays at least $500 per year in federal income taxes — to appreciate that April 15 is not Christmas?

In that regard I now often think of Solon’s seisachtheia, the “shaking off” of debts by those small farmers of Attica burdened from having to pay 1/6th (or so scholars still believe) of their produce to their creditors — or the Messenian helots who were obligated to give ¼ to ½ of everything they produced to their Spartan overlord. Yet at this point, with a looming 40% federal tax rate, 12% California tax, returning payroll and higher Medicare taxes, and the new Obamacare hit, millions would prefer the oppressive take of classical serfdom to the present 55-60% of their income grabbed by the state. The new American helots, after all, will fork over sixty percent of their almond crops to the IRS, build six out of ten houses for their government, drive their trucks until July for Washington — and write thirty PJ weekly columns a year for Obama. The Tea Party might have been better named the Helot Party.

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