Rubicon

I am reading Rubicon by Tom Holland to prepare for an essay question for Roman History.

He gives a quote that I put in the blog last year from Caesar’s account of his campaigns in Gaul.

Human nature is universally imbued with a desire for liberty, and a hatred for servitude.

Of course the Gallic Wars was also a work of propaganda. Whether humans innately desire liberty is an interesting question in light of the time Caesar lived in. It is also a very relevant quote these days.

On the shortness of life

It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to use for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realise that it has passed away before we knew it was passing.

Seneca, On the Shortness of Life. C 5BC – AD 65

Ferguson sounding like De Botton

In a way, if you are the imperial power you have to accept that people are going to hate you however you go about spreading your influence. One of the problems Americans have is this desire to be loved. Legitimacy isn’t necessarily based on affection. It’s based on credibility. And I think what we’re seeing in Iraq is just the latest in a series of tests of American resolve and credibility. It’s not the hatred one should worry about, it’s the contempt. The legitimacy that the United States will achieve if it makes a success of Iraq will outweigh the inevitable resentment. You need to be respected. And the United States has a long way to go before it attains that respect, most obviously in the Middle East.

Ferguson on the human cost of empire

First, remember that people may kill one another even more in the absence of empire—see sub-Saharan Africa. Second, if we don’t extend our civilization, an even worse empire may emerge—see the Cold War. It is the habitual fantasy of many Americans that if the U.S. would just stop intervening abroad everybody in the world would enact the lyrics of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” History suggests otherwise.

Ferguson on whether America is an empire

It’s [America] an empire that has all the functions of military empire, if you like. It has the capacity to project itself in terms of force over vast geographical distances. It’s an empire that is remarkably adept at spreading its culture globally. In that sense, it’s an empire with almost unrivaled military and cultural power. But when it comes to what might be called imperial governance, it is an empire which, precisely because it doesn’t recognize its own existence, consistently underperforms.

De Botton on modern life

Look at advertising: its sole function is to make us feel that certain things are missing from our lives. So today it’s possible for someone to feel poor if they don’t have air-conditioning or a flat-screen TV in a way that they wouldn’t have fifty or even ten years ago. Our sense of what it is to be reasonably well-off keeps changing, keeps rising—even though all of us are much better off than people were hundreds of years ago. But no one compares themselves to someone who lived three-hundred years ago or to someone in sub-Saharan Africa. We take our points of reference from those around us: our friends, our family. These are the people who determine our feelings of success. Which is why Rousseau wrote that the best way to become rich is not by trying to make more money, but by separating yourself from anyone around you who has had the bad taste to become more successful than you. It’s a facetious point, but it’s also a serious one. Feelings of wealth are relative.

De Botton on everything being ok

I also rather enjoy mocking the modern spirit of optimism. We’re often told that the best way to make someone feel good about their life is to tell them something cheerful. I’m more attracted to an alternative line, which is to argue that people are most cheered up by despairing thoughts about life. If you’re feeling a bit down, the last thing you want to read is a book telling you that everything will be well. You really should turn to Schopenhauer or Kirkegaard who will tell you that unhappiness is intrinsic to the human condition.

De Botton on productivity versus lunch breaks

When you think of a productive economy you’re thinking of an anxious economy. You’re looking at many, many people who are afraid about hanging on to their places. You can either lead a simple life—the Jeffersonian ideal of the independent farmer with his simple log cabin. Or you can lead a city life. It’s your choice. I guess a Marxist would say that in the ideal future we would have a noble feudal community and high technology at the same time. But on the whole I think it’s perceived as a choice. Productivity and GNP are linked to the anxieties of many, many individual workers. An economy like that of France—a so-called “unproductive economy”—is in a way a more relaxed economy. Any given country will be successful at some things and unsuccessful at others. France may be somewhat unsuccessful economically, but it’s successful in its long lunch break. There’s that choice.