Humanist Comic Elements in Aristophanes and the Old Testament, by Benjamin Lazarus

978-1-4632-0243-9I’m a member of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South. As such, I regularly receive book reviews in my email on recent scholarly publications dealing with the ancient Mediterranean world.

One of these recent reviews was by Ioannis Konstantakos of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. Professor Konstantakos discussed Humanist Comic Elements in Aristophanes and the Old Testament by Benjamin Lazarus.  The book sounds extremely interesting. Here are a couple of paragraphs from Professor Konstantakis’ review:

Jonah and the Dionysus of the Frogs exemplify another comic prototype, the “Comic Failure” (Lazarus’ term) or “comic anti-hero”, as he might be called in contrast to the heroic Aristophanic protagonists discussed by Cedric Whitman (Aristophanes and the Comic Hero, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964). This kind of character becomes laughable by constantly failing to live up to the expectations of his role. The buffoonish Dionysus proves unable to judge poetry correctly and even to impersonate Heracles competently, despite his celebrated associations with the theater. Jonah cannot meet the requirements of his prophetic mission and repeatedly fails to recognize the will of Yahweh. There are additional analogies in the two story patterns, as both anti-heroes experience a katabasis into the world of death (the belly of the fish in Jonah is expressly likened to Sheol), but return without real improvement. Both Dionysus and Jonah are parodies of serious models, respectively Heracles’ dark journey to Hades and Elijah’s prophetic career. Their incompetence is underlined by figures of lower status, such as Dionysus’ slave Xanthias or the Gentile Ninevites, who successfully perform the very tasks which these comic anti-heroes ridiculously mismanage. In this case, Lazarus has traced an important satirical structure, probably as old as the Margites and applicable to many other comic figures, from Master Ford to Iznogoud.
The final chapter brings together Wealth and Tobit, two works revolving around an ordinary protagonist, a “Comic Everyman”. Both works are set in a world of mundane suffering and injustice and use a domestic, down-to-earth kind of humor as a means of relief from the difficulties of life. In this connection, another line of enquiry would be worth pursuing. Tobit, a character at once ridiculous for his rigidity and sympathetic for his sufferings, and thus evoking a complex response from the audience, is closer to the personages of Menander than to Aristophanes’ Chremylus. Like Menandrian heroes, the characters of Tobit have a limited understanding of the universe, and their apparent tragedy is eventually turned into comedy by a supernatural force which approximates the workings of Menander’s Tyche. The shift towards domestic, low-key humor is common to New Comedy and Tobit, which is also, significantly, a Hellenistic product.

I’ve always thought Jonah was funny, and I’m glad to see a scholarly argument to the effect that this perception of mine does not mark me as an incorrigible heathen.

On the other hand, I find it difficult to imagine that the original audience of Tobit felt it was supposed to laugh at anything in it. Not that I don’t smile a bit at the idea of all those guys, one after another, dutifully marching off to their deaths in Sarah’s bridal chamber, and it’s true that that dog has a disconcertingly well-developed personality. Maybe the ancients smiled at those things, too. But the whole thing is paced so much like a thriller that any breaks for laughter or classification of major characters as “ridiculous” would throw it off badly.

War for Helen?

prez01-startrek09b

One of the less well-known legends of Helen’s later life, from Star Trek comics #9

The Classics blog Sententiae Antiquae has a post today about the story that the Trojan War was triggered by Queen Helen of Sparta running off with Paris, alias Alexander, a Trojan prince. The post quotes several ancient Greek authors, sketching a variety of ways in which the ancients crafted the tale and a variety of purposes which they used it to serve.

They quote Herodotus’ remarks about the story:

“If Helen really were in Ilium, they would have given her back to the Greeks whether Paris wanted them to or not. Priam was not so out of his mind, nor were his other subjects, that they would want to risk their own bodies and children and the city itself just so that Paris could sleep with Helen.”

εἰ ἦν Ἑλένη ἐν Ἰλίῳ, ἀποδοθῆναι ἂν αὐτὴν τοῖσι Ἕλλησι ἤτοι ἑκόντος γε ἢ ἀέκοντοςἈλεξάνδρου. οὐ γὰρ δὴ οὕτω γε φρενοβλαβὴς ἦν ὁ Πρίαμος οὐδὲ οἱ ἄλλοι οἱ προσήκοντες αὐτῷ, ὥστε τοῖσι σφετέροισι σώμασι καὶ τοῖσι τέκνοισι καὶ τῇ πόλι κινδυνεύειν ἐβούλοντο, ὅκως Ἀλέξανδρος Ἑλένῃ συνοικέῃ. 

(Book 2, chapter 110)

I offered this comment:

I’ve always been puzzled by the tradition that regards it as self-evidently absurd that a major war could have been sparked by something like Helen and Paris running off together. It sounds pretty plausible to me.

Had Priam known, as a certainty, that Menelaos and Agamemnon would raise the army Homer describes, lay siege to Troy for 10 years, and then destroy the city, probably he would have handed Helen over the minute Menelaos demanded her. The legend says that it took years to put the coalition together, so that first demand probably came from a military power that Priam could easily have defeated. For Priam to have complied with that demand would have been to present himself as a soft target to every power with designs on Troy.

Even if he had known that a vast army was coming after him and that they would defeat him, however, after that first minute had passed it would have become extremely difficult for Priam to surrender Helen. Every moment Helen was in Troy, a larger share of Priam’s prestige was invested in keeping her there. After just a few days, giving her up would have been a severe loss of face. And the way politics works, if you lose face severely enough, there’s no limit to what you can lose.

I think of the week that followed 11 September 2001. The USA demanded that the Taliban hand over Osama bin Laden; some very well-informed people of my acquaintance were quite sure that bin Laden and his circle had planned and ordered the attacks without informing the Taliban leadership, but were also sure that the Taliban leaders would not comply with the American demand, even though they knew that refusing to do so would result in the bombing, invasion, and occupation of Afghanistan, because complying would invite out-factions within their movement to stage a coup. Either way, they would lose control of the country. But while they might escape from the American onslaught with their lives, and perhaps even with a chance at returning to power if the occupation went badly, a coup would lead directly to their deaths.

Large-scale rationality, with economic interests and geopolitical power structures and so on, that’s very important in keeping a war going and setting the range of possible postwar environments. But the events that lead up to war take place at a different level, where there’s a lot of contingency and a lot of personality. That must have been quite obvious in ancient times, when a policymaker in Asia Minor had no way of getting information in real time about military alliances that are or are not being formed in mainland Greece, but plenty of information about who’s dominant in the face to face relationships he has with the people around him.

I teach Latin and Greek at a mid-ranking college in the interior of the USA. When the story of Helen and Paris comes up in my classes, I ask my students to imagine what might happen if Michelle Obama fell in love with Ji Xinping’s son and the two of them ran off together. It would be a tremendous challenge to diplomacy to prevent even that situation from ending in disastrous violence. How much more volatile would the situation be if, instead of a bilateral confrontation between nuclear-armed superpowers who are connected by an incalculable number of electronic communications on a daily basis, the parties were loose and shifting coalitions with no access to even the most basic information about each other’s positions and capabilities.

Pythagoras Today

Slate recently reran a New Scientist piece about the similarities between mathematical patterns musicologists use and mathematical patterns  researchers to explore other fields.  Pythagoras did something similar two and a half millennia ago, and built a whole religion around it.  The Pythagorean cult was apparently still up and running in 1959, that’s when no less a celebrity than Donald Duck was initiated into Pythagoreanism:

 

The internal structure of the calendar

The ancient Roman calendar gave special names to two days in each month: the Kalendae (in English, “Calends,”)which was the first day of the month; and the Idus (in English the “Ides,”) which was the fifteenth day of March, May, July, and October, but the thirteenth day of every other month.  Other days were specified by counting the days until the next Calends or Ides.  So, the last day of April was pridie Kalendas Maias, the first day before the Calends of May.  There was some special significance to what came to be called the Nonae (in English the “Nones,”) that is to say, the ninth day before the Ides.  So, in March, May, July, and October, the Nones would fall on the seventh day of the month, and in other months they would fall on the fifth day.  So today, being the fifth, is the Nonae Decembris.   As far as the formal language of law and religion were concerned, this arrangement around the Calends and the Ides constituted the whole internal structure of the month.  The Romans did experiment with various forms of the week, most notably an eight-day week that determined when markets would be held.  Undoubtedly these sequences of days would also have influenced the Romans’ perceptions of time, even if they were not regularly integrated into the official calendar.

I bring this up because of an xkcd strip that appeared a week ago today.  Cartoonist Randall Munroe used Google’s Ngram search to tabulate the number of occurrences of each date by its name (ordinal number + month name) in English-language books since 2000.  In months other than September, the 11th is mentioned substantially less often than any other date.  It's been that way since long before 9/11 and I have no idea why.

His results suggest that our months do have some kind of internal structure that is not illustrated on our usual calendars.  Those simply display numbers in a grid of weeks.  Yet Mr Munroe’s findings suggest that there is more to it than that.  As the mouseover text points out, in eleven of twelve months the eleventh is mentioned much less often than any other date.  The exception is of course September, where references to the events of 11 September 2001 propel that date to the very top of the list of frequently named dates.  Yet this pattern was already well-established before 2001, and there is no obvious explanation for it.

Some variations in frequency are relatively easy to explain.  The first of the month is usually a day when many bills and reports are due, and so the first is among the most named dates of each month.  Holidays are also prominent; notice, though, that the eleventh of November, Veterans’ Day in the USA and Remembrance Day in the countries of the Commonwealth, is no bigger on Mr Munroe’s chart than the little elevenths of the other months.  The 15th of April is quite prominent; that has traditionally been the day when income taxes were due in the USA.  But, in addition to the mystery of the obscured elevenths, we also notice that the fourth and nineteenth are bigger than average in most months.  Why would that be?  Perhaps it doesn’t mean anything, but perhaps there is some explanation that would become obvious if we were in the habit of thinking of calendars, not as the grids of weeks that are usually tacked on walls in the West, but as structures built around major days, structures like those the ancient Romans used.  Too bad we can’t raise some ancient Romans from the dead and put them in charge of investigating the question, their perspective might result in a most fruitful study.  I suppose the best substitute would be classical scholars who have spent time studying the ancient Roman calendar.

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.

Paul Elmer More fans, take note!

Paul Elmer More (1864-1937) and Irving Babbitt (1865-1933) were the co-founders of a school of thought known as the “New Humanism” or “American Humanism.”  These literary scholars sought to establish that a particular set of propositions about morals and psychology could be found in the most respected books of many of the world’s great literatures.  Babbitt was an irreligious man, but he dutifully included the Bible on his list of Great Books; he took a serious academic interest in early Buddhist writings, and late in life began a study of Confucius.

While Babbitt included sacred texts in his studies in an attempt to show that there is a form of moralism that is compatible with many religions but dependent on none of them, More took a different approach.  He had a strong, though vague, religious leaning; after youthful studies of the Upanishads and other holy books from ancient India, he settled into Anglo-Catholicism.  By far the most popular of More’s books in his lifetime was The Sceptical Approach to Religion; I suspect its popularity is based solely on its title.  While the rest of his books are written in a remarkably clear, easy style, The Sceptical Approach to Religion is largely unreadable.  Intended as a work of apologetics, the book consists primarily of disavowals, qualifications, and backpedaling of every sort.  The Sceptical Approach to Religion appeared in 1934, the year after Irving Babbitt’s death.  I suspect that if the notoriously pugnacious Babbitt had been alive to give his opinion of the book, More would never have dared release such a mealy-mouthed production.

Although The Sceptical Approach to Religion presents readers with an extraordinarily murky version of More’s religious ideas, his most sustained scholarly work, the five-volume treatise known as The Greek Tradition, paints a clearer picture.  The full title of the series is The Greek Tradition from the Death of Socrates to the Council of Chalcedon (399 BC to 451 AD.)  Its thesis is that the development of ancient Greek philosophy beginning with Plato found its logical culmination in the debates at the Council of Chalcedon and the doctrines that emerged from those debates.  The study has its eccentric aspects certainly, and shows its age.  Nor can a nonbeliever quite take More’s thesis seriously.  Nonetheless, I can say that it has repaid me well every time I’ve read it, for all my skepticism.

Now we have a new book that apparently reflects a research program similar in scope, if not in theological purpose.  Marian Hillar, a professor of philosophy and biochemistry* at Texas Southern University, has published a book called From Logos to Trinity: The Evolution of Religious Beliefs from Pythagoras to Tertullian (New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.)  A review of the book by Patricia Johnston of Brandeis University was recently sent to members of the Classical Association of the Midwest and South.  Professor Johnston writes:

In this sweeping review, Marian Hillar attempts to trace the development of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, from the early pre-Socratic philosophers to Tertullian, with a special focus on Philo (20 BCE–50 CE), Justin Martyr (115–165 CE), and Tertullian (160–225 CE).

Paul Elmer More would have been alarmed at that part; he objected to the doctrine of the Trinity, arguing that early Christians thought of the Holy Spirit as something on a par, not with God the Father and God the Son, but with the communion of the saints or other expressions that might very well name something of great religious importance, but that no one thought of as one of God’s Persons.  Still, More had some reservations about Justin Martyr’s orthodoxy and thought of Tertullian primarily as a notorious heretic, so he might not have found it too hard to believe that they were precursors of Trinitarianism.

*Professor Hillar was a medical doctor before earning his philosophy Ph.D.

Jewish Exegesis and Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria, by Maren Niehoff

Nowadays there’s a lot of controversy among believers as to what if anything the latest trends in historical scholarship, literary theory, and the social sciences can teach us about how to read holy books.  That isn’t new; Professor Maren Niehoff of  the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has written a book called Jewish Exegesis and Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria about evidence that sheds light on how the Jews of Alexandria read the Bible in the years from 322 BC to AD 50.

The ethnically Greek residents of Alexandria had developed the study of Homer’s poems in directions that sometimes seem unsettlingly modern, and some Jewish Alexandrians had applied their techniques to the study of the Bible.    People who think it’s anachronism to hear about Mikhail Bakhtin or Judith Butler or Wolfgang Iser or Wendy Doniger in a study of the Bible might sympathize with ancients like Aristeas and Philo of Alexandria who were incensed with their fellows who seemed to think that you had to read Aristotle and other cutting-edge intellectuals to understand the scriptures.

I haven’t seen Professor Niehoff’s book yet.  I’ve read a review of it by Bruce Louden that was sent to a mailing list I’m on.  Here’s an interesting paragraph from Professor Louden’s review:

Part II, “Critical Homeric Scholarship in the Fragments of Philo’s Anonymous Colleagues,” situates Philo by demonstrating his differences with his contemporaries. Some anonymous contemporary exegetes, for instance, apply something close to the techniques of comparative mythology to analyze the Tower of Babel episode (comparing it to the myth of the Aloeidae), which he rejects. In their analysis of biblical texts they evidence the influence of Aristotle, and Alexandrian Homeric text-critics, seeing parallels between Homeric epic and the Bible. They place the story of Isaac in a context of actual narratives of child sacrifice, resolving interpretive issues by arguing for historical distance, as Aristotle does in the fragments of the Aporemata Homerica. They thus argue that the Bible, and its religion, has developed and evolved over time. Philo himself espouses a strongly conservative perspective, that Moses has written “eternal, unchanging truth” (95). His contemporaries, in strong contrast, criticize some of God’s acts, such as the confusing of languages in Genesis, as making matters worse for humanity. The section concludes with discussion of how the biblical exegetes, applying Alexandrian Homeric text-critical methods to passages with grammatical problems or flaws in the Greek text, were willing to correct words or phrases. While neither Philo nor his anonymous colleagues know Hebrew (they only know the Old Testament in the LXX), Philo nonetheless argues that the “flaws” could be explained by finding deeper meaning of some sort.

 

Walking in Roman Culture

For years I’ve had it in the back of my mind to prepare a study called Posture and Gait in Classical Antiquity.  We have a variety of sources that could help us reach conclusions about how various types of people tended to stand and move in ancient times.  There are literary descriptions of posture and gait, visual artworks depicting people standing and walking, clothes that required a particular posture and gait if they were to stay on the wearer’s body, shoes that exhibit particular patterns of wear, buildings with entryways that accommodate some strides better than others.  Were such a study completed, it could open the door to investigations in topics ranging from dance to infantry operations to architecture to the status of the disabled and the expression of social class in antiquity.

I’ve never got around to beginning such a study, and now I find that someone has had a similar idea.  Timothy M. O’Sullivan of Trinity University has written a book called Walking in Roman Culture.  According to a review by Alana Lukes that circulated on an email list of members of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South, a professional organization of American classicists, Professor O’Sullivan’s book presents “a compilation of citations from ancient sources which mention the physical activity of walking by the ancient Romans,” and does not go into depth on any other sort of evidence.  Still, that’s quite enough material for one book.  The magnum opus I have occasionally toyed with the idea of creating would be the work of decades, and Professor O’Sullivan appears to be  quite a young fellow.  So perhaps he’ll end up writing such a thing.

Some interesting comments by Michael Peachin about a new book on the Emperor Claudius

Proclaiming Claudius Emperor, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema

As a subscriber to Classical Journal, I regularly receive emailed reviews of new scholarly books concerning ancient Greece and Rome.  The other day, for example, they sent me Michael Peachin‘s review of Claudius Caesar: Image and Power in the Early Roman Empire, by Josiah Osgood (Cambridge University Press, 2010).  The only other notice I’d seen of the book was a drearily dutiful one in The Bryn Mawr Classical Review, so I was surprised that Peachin found some exciting points in the book.  I’ll quote two of these points:

Several recent accounts of Roman emperors have sailed off on a new tack. Instead of attempting a traditional biographical interpretationof the man, and thereby also a chronicle of his reign, each of thesehas sought to present an emperor on his own terms, and/or to view himas he was perceived by certain groups of contemporaries (other than theelite authors, who usually monopolize discussion). Thus, Caligula was notout of his mind; he simply had no taste for playing republic, when thereality was despotism; and so, he fashioned himself overtly as a tyrant,regardless of the consequences – or perhaps precisely to elicit certainones of those (A. Winterling, Caligula: A Biography [Berkeley, 2011]).

 

When I was in graduate school, I took a seminar on Roman history in which the professor horrified about half the class by spending a day arguing that Caligula was probably not a lunatic.  A few of my classmates were committed to the view of the third emperor presented in the ancient historical texts, and were appalled to hear a revision of that view; the others were committed to the idea that the only sort of history worth doing was social history that focused on the most numerous groups in a society, and so were appalled that we were spending so much time on the question of one man’s mental health.  I was not in either of those groups, but loved the day and have been defending Caligula ever since.  By the way, there’s a fine review of Winterling’s book in September’s New Criterion.  I recommend it to the the general reader.

Peachin makes a point that I found especially fascinating:

Augustus, in fine, had played his part well; but as Osgood aptly demonstrates, he fated all the various players in the sequel to write their own scripts as they went. In any case, Osgood argues that Claudius quite actively tried to shape his own time as emperor, and that in doing so, he contributed materially to the development of the imperial ‘system.’ As we observe this particular emperor at work, we are also being nudged slightly away from Fergus Millar’s  picture of a more passive, and perhaps generic, sort of monarch (The Emperor in the Roman World [Ithaca, 1977]): “…who the emperor was mattered” [136]). Still, Osgood sees quite clearly that Claudius (or any emperor) was indeed only one person; and hence, the princeps’  direct involvement with his subjects was perforce limited. Thus, when an emperor did choose to intervene, the event was so momentous as to carry an aura of the divine. That said, Claudius was no lone actor. We are reminded, throughout, that “…much of this emperor’s image, like any other’s, was constructed in dialogue with his subjects” (317.)

So, it was precisely because the emperor’s position was inherently weak that he inspired awe in his subjects.  This is just the sort of paradox I can never resist.

Many readers will be familiar with the theory that historian Arnaldo Momigliano developed and that Robert Graves popularized in his novels about Claudius.  Under this theory, Claudius wanted to phase out the principate and restore the old Republic.  Peachin explains Osgood’s view of this theory with admirable concision:

Following Momigliano’s observations (Claudius: the Emperor and His Achievement [Oxford, 1934]), Osgood stresses the fact that Augustus’ uneasy amalgam of republic and empire remained a befuddling puzzle  for Claudius (indeed, for every emperor). In particular, the quasi-retention of a republican state meant that a new imperial system of   government could not be crafted with anything even approaching clarity, or in any detail. Thus, to start at the start, when Gaius [a.k.a. Caligula] was murdered, and had not indicated a successor, a conclusively ‘proper’ or ‘constitutional’ way forward was nowhere to be discovered. That notwithstanding, Claudius was quickly on the throne; but then, the awkward facts of his accession, not to mention the earlier vituperation of him by members of the Augustan house (and others), seriously undercut his authority. Attempting to counter such hindrances, and just generally in his zeal to rule as he found appropriate, Claudius was too fastidious.     The result was a nasty paradox: “The loftier the goals the emperor set  for his administration, the more likely he was to fail, and to open himself to allegations of incompetency, or even corruption. Yet precisely  to try to win loyalty and increase his prestige, Claudius had to set   loftier goals than those of Tiberius, even those of Caligula” (189).

Considering that the written law in Rome in 41 BC was predicated on the idea that the Republic was still functioning, and that Claudius owed the principate to the very group of men who had just violently murdered his predecessor, it would have been quite a challenge for him to find a way to present his accession as legitimate without appealing to the idea of a restored Republic.   In no position to prosecute the assassins of Caligula, Claudius could only appeal to the right of tyrannicide, and thus evoke the two Brutuses, one who according to legend struck against the Tarquins in order to end the monarchy and establish the Republic, and the other who struck against Julius Caesar the Dictator in an attempt to prevent a new monarchy from ending the Republic.   If there were people who took this forced imposture at face value, one can hardly blame Claudius.

 

Did astrology originate in cities?

I wonder if the first astrologers were city-dwellers.  True, archeologists have found evidence that people who lived before the rise of cities paid close attention to the orbit of the Moon and identified constellations, and have argued that the orientations of temples and other religious structures from those days suggest that they attached a religious significance to the movements of heavenly bodies.  Those activities are hardly surprising; farmers need a calendar to plan their year, as hunter-gatherers also need to plan their expeditions for times when game will be relatively plentiful and fruit ripe for the picking.  Still, it might not be too much of a stretch to look at a society that invests heavily in maintaining and publicizing its calendar and to see a suggestion of something like what the western branch of organized Christianity used to call “natural astrology,” a set of ideas about ways in which heavenly bodies might influence the earth’s weather and various medical phenomena related to the transmission of disease.

Quite distinct from natural astrology are the various studies to which the Western Church used to refer as “judicial astrology.”  That’s the part that includes horoscopes, sun signs, and the like.  The difference matters when considering the origins of astrology; we have very ancient documents relating to the movements of heavenly bodies that seem to have some special significance and that predate the earliest references to judicial astronomy by centuries.  So, I’ll use the terms.

It is sometimes said that our earliest evidence of judicial astronomy comes from Mesopotamia, but that is misleading.  The nation state didn’t exist in those days; Ur and Lagash and Akkad and Babylon and the other urban centers that rose and fell in that region interacted with the political and economic systems of the countryside around them in a variety of ways, but in other ways they remained quite distinct.  It is in such cities that we find the first documents describing judicial astrology.

If astrology did arise in cities, it arose in a social environment where markets were familiar.  Its entire history would have taken place amid money, contracts, and production for exchange.  That calls into question the assumptions that we discussed last year when this xkcd appeared:

Not to be confused with "selling this stuff to OTHER people who think it works," which corporate accountants and actuaries have zero problems with.

Some people fall into the assumption that, because markets promote something called “rationality,” they must therefore favor every form of reason and disfavor every form of unreason.  However, the rationality which comes from markets is in fact something of a very narrow sort.  A month after our discussion, we noted that Shikha Dalmia had put it very well: “Markets don’t reward merit, they reward value.”  Dalmia summarizes the views of economist Friedrich Hayek:

In a functioning market, Hayek insisted, financial compensation depends not on someone’s innate gifts or moral character. Nor even on the originality or technological brilliance of their products. Nor, for that matter, on the effort that goes into producing them. The sole and only issue is a product’s value to others. Compare an innovation as incredibly mundane as a new plastic lid for paint cans with a whiz-bang, new computer chip. The painter could become just as rich as the computer whiz so long as the savings from spills that the lid offers are as great as the productivity gains from the chip. It matters not a whit that the lid maker is a drunk, wife-beating, out-of-work painter who stumbled upon this idea through pure serendipity when he tripped over a can of paint. Or that the computer whiz is a morally stellar Ph.D. who spent years perfecting his chip.

As markets are neutral as to the virtue or vice of economic actors, so too are they neutral as to the truth or falsity of the ideas that those actors bring as products for sale.  If falsehoods are in demand, falsehoods will sell; if truths are not in demand, their bearers will go begging.  The mouseover text for the xkcd represents a nod to this fact, and an attempt to wriggle out of its implications: “Not to be confused with ‘selling this stuff to OTHER people who think it works,’ which corporate accountants and actuaries have zero problems with.”  That won’t do, since it assumes that we can assign a fixed meaning to the expression “works.”  An investment advisor who believes in astrology may not be any likelier than other advisors to beat the market, but s/he may very well use that belief to “make a killing,” if s/he attracts clients who strongly value such a belief.  In that case, astrology would not “work” in the sense that quantitative analysts officially recognize, but it would make the advisor every bit as rich as it would if it did meet their definitions of success.  As for whether it makes the clients rich, well, Fred Schwed answered that one in 1940:

Once in the dear dead days beyond recall, an out of town visitor was being shown the wonders of the New York financial district.  When the party arrived at the Battery, one of his guides indicated some handsome ships riding at anchor.  He said, “Look, these are the bankers’ and brokers’ yachts.”  “Where are the customers’ yachts?,” asked the naive visitor.

Clearly, markets have not dissolved belief in astrology, any more than the continued non-existence of the customers’ yachts has discouraged people going to brokers and bankers.  If the practice of judicial astrology first arose in cities, it may in fact be a by-product of market society.  Perhaps we might find that judicial astrology began, not simply as a more elaborate version of a natural astrology that had long been a feature of rural life, but as an attempt to understand market interactions and the power of the market.  In that case, it would qualify as a school of economics.  One may wonder whether judicial astrology would be the most absurd such school in practice today.

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