A possible etymology of the name “Acilius”

I’ve long used “Acilius” as my screen-name, in tribute to Gaius Acilius, a Roman historian who was alive and doing interesting things in 155 BC.  It never occurred to me that anyone would know the etymology of the name “Acilius”; it was quite an old name among the Romans, and they did not really keep track of that sort of thing in those days.

A couple of months ago, I happened onto a post on the blog “Paleoglot” which led me to wonder if there might not be a way to explore the question of where the gens Acilia found its name.  Blogger Glen Gordon analyzes various occurrences of a stem acil- in Etruscan.  In his conclusion, Mr Gordon offers these definitions to cover the occurrences he has discussed:

I think we could define the English translations of the whole word family much better as part of a grander morphological design:

*aχ (v.) = ‘to do, to make, to cause’
> acas (v.) = ‘to craft, to make’
> acil (n.) = ‘thing, act; rite, holy service’ (> acil (v.) = ‘to do rites, to worship’)

The implied underlying verb here, *aχ, reminds me very much of the Indo-European *h₂eǵ-, as if borrowed from Latin agere ‘to drive, lead, conduct, impel’.

This intrigues me very much.  If the Etruscans borrowed such a word from Latin, that would suggest that the usual story about the relationship between Etruscan religion and Roman religion is misleading.  Rather than a situation in which the Etruscans molded the religious practices and ideas of their subjects, the early Romans, the presence of a Latinate word in Etruscan religious vocabulary would suggest a reciprocal relationship between the hegemonic Etruscans and their vassals.

On the other hand, if the similarity between acil- and agere is a mere coincidence, another possibility presents itself.  This is where the Acilii come to mind.  Perhaps the name “Acilius” is a combination of the Etruscan root acil-, with its sense of performing holy service, and the Latinate suffix -ius.  A fairly exact equivalent could be suggested, as chance would have it, in the English name “Priestley,” where the borrowed word priest is combined with the indigenous suffix -ley.  So perhaps all these years I’ve been unwittingly associating myself with such distinguished polymaths as Joseph Priestley and J. B. Priestley.

The political history of the USA in two charts

This chart was published in 1880, in a book called Conspectus of the History of Political Parties, by Walter R. Houghton.  In July, Susan Schulten put it on her blog, Andrew Sullivan mentioned it on his, and I put it up on Tumblr.  Here it is full-size.

This was today’s xkcd comic.  Click on it for a zoomable version.

I think the chart from the Houghton book is more elegant, but this one is nice also.


Is the Republican Party strong enough to survive a Romney presidency?

The other day,Jack Balkin of Yale Law School posted an item on The Atlantic‘s website in which he argued that, if former Massachusetts governor Willard M. “Mitt” Romney is elected president of the United States a week from Tuesday, his administration will likely come with great cost to the Republican Party which he nominally leads.  Professor Balkin links to the Amazon listings for two books by political scientist Stephen Skowronek (The Politics Presidents Make and Presidential Leadership in Political Time.)  Professor Skowronek classifies US presidents by the relationship they and their parties have to each other and to what Professor Balkin summarizes as the “interests, assumptions, and ideologies that dominate public discussion.”  Together, these interests, assumptions, and ideologies set the boundaries of the political “regime” of the period.  Professor Skowronek asks two questions about each of the US presidents*: “Skowronek’s key insight is that a president’s ability to establish his political legitimacy depends on where he sits in “political time”: Is he allied with the dominant regime or opposed to it, and is the regime itself powerful or in decline?”  Presidents who lead strong parties that oppose declining regimes can sweep those regimes away and implement sweeping new policies.  Professor Skowronek’s label for the few presidents who have held and capitalized in this enviable position is “reconstructive president.”  If the regime that takes shape under the administration of a reconstructive president continues to thrive after his time in office, his successors can be either “affiliated presidents,” who support the  regime and try to extend it, or “preemptive presidents,” who oppose the regime and try to modify it.  When the regime goes into terminal decline, affiliated presidents go down to political defeat, as “disjunctive presidents,” while preemptive presidents can attempt to join the list of reconstructive presidents.

Professor Balkin argues that the current regime in the USA emerged when the Reagan-Bush administration cut personal income taxes and increased defense spending on big-ticket weapons systems.  These measures were intended to solve certain problems the USA faced at the beginning of the 1980s; the tax cuts did in fact precede an end to the “stagflation” that had plagued the 1970s, and the military buildup did in fact worry the Soviet Union.  These measures, apparently successful as solutions to those particular problems, have been the foundation stones of national policy for nearly a third of a century.  Thus, Professor Balkin classifies Ronald Reagan as a reconstructive president, the two George Bushes as affiliated presidents, and Bill Clinton and Barack Obama as preemptive presidents.  Like observers well to his right, Professor Balkin has come to the conclusion that lower taxes and higher spending on big-ticket weapons systems have run their course.  Our current economic woes are not an example of stagflation, and even if they were it is by no means certain that in an age of global capital further reductions in personal income tax could relieve them.  Nor does the Soviet Union, or any other potential adversary against which the weapons systems that eat up most of our military budget would be useful, exists at present.  Tied to a party that has become increasingly doctrinaire in its attachment to these anachronistic policies, a President Romney would be doomed to join the ranks of the disjunctive presidents.  He might be comfortable in their company; the last two disjunctive presidents were Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, like Mr Romney businessmen who campaigned on their abilities as technocratic managers.  Professor Balkin goes so far as to declare that “The next Jimmy Carter will be a Republican president — a Republican who, due to circumstances beyond his control, unwittingly presides over the dissolution of the Reagan coalition.”

I’m not altogether convinced that a Romney administration would necessarily end as the Hoover and Carter administrations ended, with a landslide defeat for the president after one term and a new American regime created by his successor.  I suppose if I were a Democratic politician considering a bid for the presidency in 2016, I would find the idea irresistible, but it strikes me that an incumbent president does have some influence over his party.  If it is so obvious that the policies that carried Ronald Reagan to reelection in 1984 are no longer applicable to the problems of our day, then a President Romney might not only see this himself, but might well be able to find powerful forces in the Republican Party that will support him in an effort to reorient the party towards some new agenda.  He, not a Democratic successor of his, might then emerge as a reconstructive president who creates a new regime.

If Mr Romney is elected and rises to his historical moment in this way, I would suggest a parallel to the presidencies of William McKinley (1897-1901) and Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909.)  Those presidents together enacted an agenda of territorial expansion, commercial regulation, and political centralization that marked a significant departure from main line of post-Civil War politics, and established the regime that Herbert Hoover was trying to preserve thirty years later.  Surely we ought to would classify them as reconstructive presidents.  Yet the regime they replaced had been created during the Civil War, when their fellow Republican Abraham Lincoln had played the role of reconstructive president.  By this reckoning Democrat Grover Cleveland was at once a preemptive president ( 1885-1889 and 1893-1897) and a disjunctive president, opposing typical postbellum Republican policies of high tariffs and military pensions, and a disjunctive president, being the last to govern within the bounds set by the old regime.  Barack Obama might follow President Cleveland in this regard, with such measures as his health insurance reform and his moderate stand on social issues qualifying him as a preemptive president while his warmaking and support for Republican-devised subsidies to the financial firms would place him in the line of post-Reagan presidents.

I should add that I am not at all optimistic that a new political regime founded by Mr Romney and his associates would be desirable.  Given his platform, his background, and his associates, I suspect it would be pretty nearly intolerable, with taxes paid directly to the moneyed elite, frequent wars, and an end to civil liberties.  In these ways, such a regime could fairly be labeled fascist.  However, Professor Skowronek’s system focuses, not on what is desirable or undesirable, but on what is sustainable or unsustainable in a particular period of history.  And I suspect that fascism of that sort might very well be sustainable for quite some time.

*No, not about how they would do in a mass knife fight to the death, unfortunately.

Time and cartoons

In the comic books, Superman is quitting his day job as a newspaperman.  The company that publishes the Superman titles, DC Comics, explains that, as part of an effort to make the character more relevant to “the 21st century,” he will become- a blogger!  Evidently the part of the 21st century they want him to be relevant to is the part that ended about 6 years ago.

Nina Paley summarizes the history of the Levant in 3 minutes and 32 seconds of animation.

Despite what you’d expect from a webcomic with its name, Doghouse Diaries rarely deals with dogs.  Yesterday’s strip is therefore in rare company.

Neither Zach Weiner nor Randall Munroe is at all impressed with the level of statistical discourse in mass media.


George McGovern

Former US Senator George McGovern, the Democratic Party’s 1972 presidential nominee, died the other day.  Since 1972, it has often been possible to argue that one major party’s presidential candidate was a lesser evil than the other party’s offering; I thought Barack Obama was a demonstrably lesser evil than John McCain in 2008, for example.  But Senator McGovern was not at all evil.  He was quite admirable and thoroughly sane.  Of course he lost by one of the biggest landslides in history, to Richard Nixon.

Four years ago, I posted a link to a commercial the McGovern campaign put on television in 1972.  Here’s another link to the same commercial, the only political ad I’ve ever seen that is 100% free of bullshit.  The senator talks with a group of veterans just returned from Vietnam with newly acquired disabilities; it’s as uncomfortable to watch as you’d suppose it would be, and that seems to have been the intention.

Wasted votes

In a couple of weeks, voters in the USA will go to the polls to fill a number of offices, including the electors who will either return Barack Obama to the White House for another four years as the country’s president or replace him with former Massachusetts governor Willard M. “Mitt” Romney.  To be more precise, that is when the last voters will cast their ballots; millions of of Americans, Mrs Acilius and I among them, have already cast absentee ballots.

The missus and I did not, as it happens, vote for either Mr O or his leading opponent.  We had planned to vote for Ross “Rocky” Anderson, former mayor of Salt Lake City, Utah, whose independent bid focuses, first, on opposition to the wars the USA is currently waging or underwriting in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Libya, Mali, Mauretania, and heaven knows how many other countries; second, on opposition to “anti-terrorism” policies that have compromised the rule of law so drastically that Mr O openly boasts of murders he has ordered and plans to order in the future;  third, on support for investigation and prosecution of any and all war crimes that recent US presidents have sponsored.  But Mr Anderson did not gain sufficient support to be certified as a candidate in our state.  So we voted instead for Green Party nominee Jill Stein.  Dr Stein agrees with Mr Anderson on all of those points, but focuses her campaign on environmental policy and poverty issues.

Many people like to say that, because Mr O and Mr Romney are the only candidates with any chance of winning next month’s election, votes for any other candidate are “wasted.”  On its face, this expression is nonsensical.  It isn’t as if the polling places were casinos where the machines pay out if voters cast a ballot for a winner.  I have often asked people what they meant they say that votes for candidates unlikely to win are “wasted,” and have read many internet comment threads where people have been asked to explain what they mean by it.  The response is invariably a repetition of the claim that some candidate or other is unlikely to win, usually accompanied by a lot of bluster asserting that it is a sign of some moral deficiency to vote for anyone other than a likely winner.

Incoherent as these responses are, they seem to reflect a distinction that political scientists make between two kinds of voting behavior.  They talk about “instrumental voting” and “expressive voting.”  Instrumental voting, in its most basic form, represents a voter’s hope that s/he will cast the decisive ballot; expressive voting represents the voter’s attempt to make his or her policy preferences clear.

Political scientists sometimes go to great lengths to defend the rationality of instrumental voting.  Yet a moment’s reflection should suffice to show that in any election where the electorate is more than 600 or 700 people, the likelihood that there will be a single decisive ballot is quite small.  In a race like that for US president, where over one hundred million ballots will be cast and the electoral process is indirect, the probability that the outcome will be decided by a single ballot is effectively nil.  Meanwhile, if it is generally expected that the same electorate will vote again in the future and that such voting will be comparable in importance to the present election, political actors will analyze the results of the election as they formulate their plans for governing and campaigning.  The more votes a losing candidate receives, the more likely the policies associated with that candidate are to receive serious consideration in the interval before the next election.  Nowadays, the methods of analysis that parties, advocacy groups, candidates, and other political actors apply to election returns are so sensitive that even tiny numbers of votes can provide elected officials with information that they may profitably use in forming their approach to governing and campaigning.  Therefore, it is not too much to say that expressive voting is in fact the only rational form of voting behavior wherever the electorate is larger than a few hundred people.

What brought all this to my mind were three pieces I recently read dealing with the 2012 campaign.  Two of them were from lefties exasperated with Democrats telling them that any vote not cast for Mr O is effectively an endorsement of Mr Romney’s worst proposals; these were from Ted Rall and M. G. Piety of Counterpunch.  Another was from a right-wingers exasperated with Republicans telling him that any vote not cast for Mr Romney is effectively an endorsement of the misdeeds of the Obama administration; this was from Mark P. Shea.  In particular, Mr Rall’s arguments, and even his presentation of them as a series of replies to Frequently-Asked-Questions, are remarkably similar to Mr Shea’s.  Of course, the two are poles apart on most issues, but do unite in opposition to the idea of voting for either Mr O or his Republican counterpart.

Without a net

I’ve written long comments recently on two blogs, Secular Right and Kenan Malik’s Pandaemonium.  Both of these blogs are written by and for secular-minded people who value freedom of speech.  As its name would indicate, Secular Right usually favors a conservative political agenda; Mr Malik is a man of the center-left in politics.

A week ago, Mr Malik posted this “Jesus and Mo” strip at Pandaemonium.  Mr Malik said that the strip said in fewer than 50 words what he took more than 4000 words to say in this talk earlier last year:

I for one preferred Mr Malik’s talk, and explained why in this long comment:

I think you and Plato, in the talk to which you link, do a better job of handling this particular question than Jesus and Mo do. The greatest advantage religious codes of conduct have over the philosophical study of ethics is that they are slower to collapse into debates about contrived hypothetical scenarios.

I should explain that in his talk, delivered to theology students at the University of Bristol, Mr Malik had discussed Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, in which Socrates asks a man named Euthyphro* if it is the will of the gods that makes an act good, or if it is the goodness of an act that makes the gods will it.  Euthyphro tries to answer, and like most of the amateur philosophers Socrates encounters in Plato’s dialogues quickly gets lost in a tangle of abstractions and finds himself making absurd, self-contradictory remarks.  Mr Malik suggests that a rephrasing of the central dilemma in which Euthyphro finds himself would be “Is God good because to be good is to be whatever God is; or is God good because He has all the properties of goodness? If it is the former, then we find once more that goodness is arbitrary, since it would be whatever God happened to be. If, on the other hand, God is good because he has all the properties of goodness, then it means that such  properties can be specified independently of God.”  In the first case, belief in God or in any other kind of supernatural order would not be sufficient to provide a rational basis for morality; in the latter case, such belief would not be necessary to provide that basis.  So the point I was making in this opening paragraph was that Euthyphro has a bigger problem even than that, and that it is one which a believer might be able to escape.

Unlike the cartoon Jesus and Mo, actually existing Christians and Muslims can refer to bodies of law and traditions of practice that have steadily been growing in tandem with conditions of daily life among vast populations for centuries. So they can answer questions like these with “It depends,” and avail themselves of a tremendous amount of material on which the answer might depend.

Someone setting out to create a philosophical system, by contrast, occupies the position in which Socrates found Euthyphro. With only abstractions as building material, such a person cannot distinguish between extreme situations in which moral reasoning is unlikely to produce useful conclusions and normative situations in which we can be expected to achieve moral clarity, Still less can such a person establish a hierarchy of cases and rules that will define some cases as analogous to others, therefore usable as precedents to decide right action in those other cases. That is so even in the case of someone like Euthyphro, whose kit of abstractions includes theological abstractions.

In other words, Euthyphro’s problem is not that he is approaching morality in terms of the wrong abstractions, but that he is approaching it in abstract terms at all.  The occasion of the dialogue is that Euthyphro is prosecuting his own father on a charge of murder.  Socrates wants to know how anyone could have so little filial piety.  In his questioning of Euthyphro, he finds that the man’s devotion to his abstract, and as it happens ill-thought-out, notions of justice has deadened him to family feeling and made him into a sort of monster.  At the close of his talk, Mr Malik seems to have such monsters in mind when he writes “The human condition is that of possessing no moral safety net. No God, no belief in God, no amount of ethical concrete, can protect us from the dangers of falling off that moral tightrope that is to be human. That can be a highly disconcerting prospect. Or it can be a highly exhilarating one. Being human, the choice is ours.”  This follows a discussion of Albert Camus, whose thought Mr Malik seems to recommend we use to help keep our balance as we walk this tightrope.

I value Albert Camus’ works highly, but I think the path to sanity runs not through books, but through human relationships.  As we try to hold onto each other, as we imitate each other, as we take up work that earlier generations began before we were born and that later generations will continue after we die, as we draw on past experience to find analogies that will help us resolve present difficulties, we connect with each other and with the world around us.  It is in those activities and the striving for the immediate that underpins them that we avoid the fate of Euthyphro.  What we need is not the “ethical concrete” Mr Malik disparages, but a concrete ethics of actual experience and loving relationships with people who are close enough to us that it would hurt if they didn’t love us back.

If theological abstractions drift about unmoored to codes of conduct and myth and ceremonial, they are little different from other abstractions. So if instead of Jesus and Muhammad, the cartoon showed Sam Harris declaring that moral questions should somehow be reduced to neurological questions, it would be just as easy to show the cartoon version of Mr Harris presented with some lifeboat scenario, and to conclude with him scratching his head as he tried to resolve that scenario by looking at an fMRI scan as it is to show Jesus and Muhammad stymied in an attempt to find a similar solution in their holy books. That would be no more cutting against Mr Harris than the present cartoon is against Jesus and Muhammad, since his appeal, like theirs, is not to any particular document, but to a deep and rich tradition of shared practice and mutual understanding. In his case, that appeal is to science, in theirs, to religion. At the end of the day, none of these appeals is more convincing to me than it is to you, but they are far more powerful than the sorts of arguments Euthyphro and his heirs make.

In his talk, Mr Malik had mentioned his disagreement with Sam Harris about the role of science in ethical debates.  He claims that there is a dividing line between himself on one side, and Mr Harris and Euthyphro on the other: “Sam Harris, one of the so-called New Atheists, and perhaps the most strident of contemporary critics of faith, in his book The Moral Landscape, attacks both religion and moral relativism, arguing that moral values are in reality moral facts and as facts they can be scientifically understood by studying brain and behaviour. ‘The wellbeing of humans and animals must depend on states of the world and on states of their brains’, he writes, ‘and science represents our most systematic means of understanding these states’.   Science, and neuroscience, do not simply explain why we might respond in particular ways to equality or to torture but also whether equality is a good, and torture morally acceptable. A Christian might look to the Bible to help distinguish right and wrong, good and evil. Harris would look in an fMRI scanner.”  Mr Malik links to a detailed critique of Mr Harris’ views that he offered last year.

I made very similar points in an even longer comment I posted on Secular Right in September.  In a post called “What is it like to be a theist?,” John Derbyshire mentioned this review of a book in which philosopher Alvin Plantinga defends belief in God as defined by the Reformed tradition in Christianity.  I haven’t read that book, but I am familiar with Professor Plantinga’s other works, and so I made some remarks about them.  That brought a friendly response from “Steve Cardon,” which was all I needed to prompt me to post this:

@Steve Cardon: Thanks for the kind words, and for several very interesting ideas.

I’m going off to think more about what you’ve written. All I know I want to say now is this:

“I can make up a story far more sophisticated and satisfying than those that have gone before. The idea that relatively backwards cultures can provide us with the ultimate answers to the universe is patently ridiculous.”

That may well be so, but the stories are only one part, usually a rather small part, of what religions offer their followers. Myths, doctrines, ritual, ceremonial, etc, all work together to help bind generation to generation and create a community with a sense of shared purpose.

Likewise with “the ultimate answers to the universe.” Religions, including ancient religions, can give you some questions about the universe, an expectation that the universe is set up to answer those questions, and a sense that it is urgent to find those answers, but the particular answers people offer are never as important as they seem at the time. So in debates about science or sexuality or economic systems or environmental policy or what have you, believers proclaim opinions in the firm conviction that they are speaking with the voice of the ancients. There we see believers feeling that their generation is bound to generations before and that they represent a project that will continue into generations yet unborn, and in some cases repeating language that they inherited from old texts.

Yet their ideas, however antique the language in which they are expressed, are about topics no one had ever heard of until recent decades. What would Moses have thought of the theory of evolution, or relativity, or the heliocentric model of the Solar System? Probably nothing- these ideas all answer questions he never asked and rely on concepts no one in the time of the Pharaohs had ever imagined. What would Paul have thought of the people in the contemporary West who want to marry members of the same sex? Again, probably nothing, certainly nothing useful. Family structure and sex roles in our time are so radically different from anything known in the Roman Empire that neither side of the debate would have been intelligible to him. Yet there are believers who find it necessary, and evidently find it gratifying, to try to square the findings of science with the earliest Hebrew scriptures and to analyze twenty-first century family formation in accord with formulas drawn from Paul’s writings. Their ideas are not ancient ideas, but their words may be ancient words. That alone seems to suffice to give them assurance of continuity.

*When I was in college, one of my Greek professors pointed out that the name “Euthyphro” is formed from Greek words meaning “broad-browed” or “wide-headed.”  So, when students translated the dialogue in class, he insisted that they call Euthyphro “Meathead.”   That was long enough ago that all of remembered this guy, and we laughed at the image of him as Socrates’ respondent.