Graceful SimplicityOne of the weird ways that I deal with complex ideas is by reading multiple books simultaneously. When I find intertextual references that are unfamiliar, I have a huge compulsion to track them down.

In Segal’s  “interlude” chapter separating his discussion of a politics of simplicity and his discussion of philosophy, there are many.

In the prior chapter, Segal suggests that education in the liberal arts be given priority over math science (STEM) education. Funny, but in the decades since this book, no one has taken him up on that.

I realize that this is a popular press title, but the lack of rigor in his citations is a bit disturbing to this reader, who is indeed a qualified liberal arts graduate. He has big habit of citing texts within texts rather than the primary texts themselves; and relying on the secondary text’s reading as his guide for interpretation.

I wasn’t familiar with the Satire on Trades (called The Instruction of Duauf by Segal). It’s a Middle Kingdom Egyptian exercise that’ I’m shocked doesn’t crop up in writing studies literature more. It may be that there are too many variant copies of this thing to make clear readings possible. Disturbingly,  Segal doesn’t treat it as a satire, but rather unironically as a polemic regarding the superiority of books/writing to trade occupations.

Segal seems to believe that rather than pursuing competitiveness in science and engineering, we’d be better off with more philosophers and literature students. That’s a tough sell in any decade, especially when you misread your own evidence.

Reaching back to 2,000 BCE to find the attitude towards “books” that you’re selling is less compelling when that attitude is found in an exercise slavishly copied by students to please their teachers. Segal asserts: “It is this writing of Duauf himself that, for us, is the book that opens up the inner world of ordinary people at the time of the Pharaohs, opens up their beauty, their love, and their anxieties” (123). As a former writing teacher, you’ll have to imagine the smirk on my face when I read that.

I must admit, the text is a hoot. It’s pretty much a “don’t be a fool, stay in school” screed from antiquity. It shows up retold 200 BC in the book of Sirach, and one interpretation I read postulated that it was just one of many examples of a text reflecting an anxiety towards the manual trades in ancient Egypt, a representative of a “genre” as much as a glimpse into anyone’s “inner world.”  The fear of craftsmen and manual laborers is also present in the literature of ancient Greece, and I’ve been collecting examples for a while. Outright hostility towards artisans seems to be the rule of the ancient world, but this is more my research project than Segal’s.

Segal simply summons this parable as defence of the liberal arts model before launching into a discussion of “golden age” rhetorics and ideas of progress, an important component of any sort of philosophy of “graceful simplicity.” The ideas are fairly easy to accept and array in bullet points (I’ll spare you).

I was impressed to find that Thucydides tells of a transition from a subsistence economy in Hellas into a trading economy, framed as “progress.” I haven’t taken the time to track down Segal’s assertion that Thucydides embeds in his tales of “progress” a narrative of improvements in technology and custom to drive these changes. What I do want to delve into though, is his treatment of Seneca and the Stoics.

It took me to figure out where he was getting his text. Segal’s citation of Seneca comes from a reader on the idea of progress, copyright 1949. There is no other identifier of the source text or identification beyond the compilation. I finally identified the portion that most interested me as Seneca’s Moral letters to Lucilius/Letter 90.

Segal is interested in Seneca because “What distinguishes Seneca’s vision is that , unlike the seventeenth and eighteenth-century apostles of progress, in Seneca, and in the intervening centuries, there is no broad assumption that progress with respect to knowledge means in increase in human virtue, well-being, or happiness” (130). Citing the letter 90, Segal attempts to make the same tension I marked earlier, the separation of educated people from artisans, into something that is a completely different issue:

Here, 2,ooo years ago we have the link being made between a doctrine of progress and a philosophy of simple living. With progress in ingenuity, that is, technology, we have a variety of new products and processes. We have apartment houses and architects and aquaculture! Invention, mechanical skill, ingenuity, labor, or, to call it what it is: economic growth. All of this emerges from human vice and foolishness. Before such luxury we were free and there was little need for labor. The path of wisdom and happiness lay elsewhere. (131-2)

Seneca’s epistle is deliciously complex, ambiguous, and nuanced. It’s not at all about “economic growth,” it’s about the role of philosophia (wisdom) in human affairs. Yes, Seneca works at length to separate wisdom from ingenuity—but it comes across to me more as wanting to deny the artisan any purchase on wisdom. The foil for the letter, Posidonius, has proposed that wise men were responsible for the improvements brought about by craft/technology, either by teaching artisans or inventing the tools; Seneca argues that these developments are not improvements, simply examples of ingenuity that man has no need of. Wisdom is another matter entirely and has nothing to do with craft.

That’s fascinating to me, much more so than Segal’s argument. I’d like to examine this letter in some detail:

Accordingly, in that age which is maintained to be the golden age, Posidonius holds that the government was under the jurisdiction of the wise. They kept their hands under control, and protected the weaker from the stronger. They gave advice, both to do and not to do; they showed what was useful and what was useless. Their forethought provided that their subjects should lack nothing; their bravery warded off dangers; their kindness enriched and adorned their subjects. For them ruling was a service, not an exercise of royalty. No ruler tried his power against those to whom he owed the beginnings of his power; and no one had the inclination, or the excuse, to do wrong, since the ruler ruled well and the subject obeyed well, and the king could utter no greater threat against disobedient subjects than that they should depart from the kingdom.

In a sense, it seems as if that in this version of the golden age (a common mythos) that the “superior” wise men/kings ruled over the weaker/dumber/cowardly folks telling them what crafts and technologies were worthy of perpetuating, making for an ideal society where everyone has plenty and the worst punishment is simply to vote the offender off the island of perfect living. Seneca can go along with this, but he just can’t abide by the part where “they showed what was useful and what was useless” to the artisans, or addressed any other mundane concerns:

Up to this point I agree with Posidonius; but that philosophy discovered the arts of which life makes use in its daily round I refuse to admit. Nor will I ascribe to it an artisan’s glory. Posidonius says: “When men were scattered over the earth, protected by eaves or by the dug-out shelter of a cliff or by the trunk of a hollow tree, it was philosophy that taught them to build houses.” But I, for my part, do not hold that philosophy devised these shrewdly-contrived dwellings of ours which rise story upon story, where city crowds against city, any more than that she invented the fish-preserves, which are enclosed for the purpose of saving men’s gluttony from having to run the risk of storms, and in order that, no matter how wildly the sea is raging, luxury may have its safe harbours in which to fatten fancy breeds of fish.

It seems to be Seneca’s position that nature provides adequately for everyone without the interference of man. That the strong should rule over the weak, no problem. Who needs houses or delicious food though? These things are luxuries:

What! Was it philosophy that taught the use of keys and bolts? Nay, what was that except giving a hint to avarice? Was it philosophy that erected all these towering tenements, so dangerous to the persons who dwell in them? Was it not enough for man to provide himself a roof of any chance covering, and to contrive for himself some natural retreat without the help of art and without trouble? Believe me, that was a happy age, before the days of architects, before the days of builders!

Apparently, sleeping on rocks under trees was just fine as far as the Stoics were concerned.

All this sort of thing was born when luxury was being born, – this matter of cutting timbers square and cleaving a beam with unerring hand as the saw made its way over the marked-out line.

The primal man with wedges split his wood.

For they were not preparing a roof for a future banquet-ball; for no such use did they carry the pine trees or the firs along the trembling streets with a long row of drays – merely to fasten thereon panelled ceilings heavy with gold. Forked poles erected at either end propped up their houses. With close-packed branches and with leaves heaped up and laid sloping they contrived a drainage for even the heaviest rains. Beneath such dwellings, they lived, but they lived in peace. A thatched roof once covered free men; under marble and gold dwells slavery.

Civilization, as we know it at least—not simply economic surplus—was what Seneca seems to be railing against here. It’s not just these opulent buildings, but buildings in general that he’s against. And as for technology, well:

On another point also I differ from Posidonius, when he holds that mechanical tools were the invention of wise men. For on that basis one might maintain that those were wise who taught the arts

Of setting traps for game, and liming twigs

For birds, and girdling mighty woods with dogs.

It was man’s ingenuity, not his wisdom, that discovered all these devices. And I also differ from him when he says that wise men discovered our mines of iron and copper, “when the earth, scorched by forest fires, melted the veins of ore which lay near the surface and caused the metal to gush forth.” Nay, the sort of men who discover such things are the sort of men who are busied with them. Nor do I consider this question so subtle as Posidonius thinks, namely, whether the hammer or the tongs came first into use. They were both invented by some man whose mind was nimble and keen, but not great or exalted; and the same holds true of any other discovery which can only be made by means of a bent body and of a mind whose gaze is upon the ground.

The real anti-artisan attitude shines here.

How, I ask, can you consistently admire both Diogenes and Daedalus? Which of these two seems to you a wise man – the one who devised the saw, or the one who, on seeing a boy drink water from the hollow of his hand, forthwith took his cup from his wallet and broke it, upbraiding himself with these words:  “Fool that I am, to have been carrying superfluous baggage all this time!” and then curled himself up in his tub and lay down to sleep?

Real men don’t need no stinking cups! That’s the Stoic attitude at least. Of course, having found this passage I then had to look up the story of the invention of the saw. It’s Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book VIII: 236-239

As he was consigning his unfortunate son to the grave, a noisy partridge poked its head out from a muddy ditch, and, called, cackling joyfully, with whirring wings. It was the only one of its kind, not seen in previous years, and only recently made a bird, as a lasting reproach to you, Daedalus. Your sister, Perdix, oblivious to the fates, sent you her son, Talus, to be taught: twelve years old, his mind ready for knowledge. Indeed, the child, studying the spine of a fish, took it as a model, and cut continuous teeth out of sharp metal, inventing the use of the saw. He was also the first to pivot two iron arms on a pin, so that, with the arms at a set distance, one part could be fixed, and the other sweep out a circle. Daedalus was jealous, and hurled the boy headlong from Minerva’s sacred citadel, claiming that he had fallen. But Pallas Minerva, who favours those with quick minds, caught him, and turned him into the partridge, masking him with feathers in mid-air. His inborn energy was transferred to swift wings and feet, and he kept his mother’s name, Perdix, from before. But the bird does not perch above the ground, and does not make its nest on branches or on high points, but flies low on whirring wings over the soil, and lays its eggs in a sheltered place.

Okay, that’s as far as I should go digging into this for today I think. The inventor of the saw, despised for his ingenuity, was transformed into a partridge. I think that pretty much illustrates my point about the perception of the artisan in the ancient world.