Do Leaders Need Myths? Do Myths Make Leaders? What is the relationship between story-telling and RULING?
PLUS: Responses to our ‘extreme’ mailbag last week...
Dear Classical Wisdom Reader,
The conversation certainly took an unexpected turn.
It was our first Symposium and the panel was supposed to be talking about how the concept of Power has changed throughout history... but somehow, fascinatingly, it evolved into a discussion on the value of myth in politics... and specifically in leaders. For instance: George Washington and the Cherry tree.
Of course the ancient world was even more replete with examples, no doubt the passage of time only exaggerating the legends, the lore, and storytelling. This relationship between story-telling and leadership is no doubt complicated. It has been used to raise up some and demonize others, all while capturing one’s attention and memory.
Perhaps that’s why it’s something I have thought of ever since, and is a topic I would like to explore more...
In fact, I will be delivering a talk on the subject on December 3rd at the next Plato’s Academy Centre Conference: Ancient Philosophy for Modern Leadership.
Of course you are invited, dear reader, to join our forthcoming virtual conference which will delve into Stories of Character, Confidence and Success.
Philosophy can teach us not only how to become better leaders ourselves but also what to expect from our leaders, and how to know good leaders from bad ones! As the ancient Greek sage and lawmaker, Solon, likewise taught Athenians that to be a leader one must first of all learn how to be led by others.
Featuring a wide variety of academics, CEOs, and other leaders to discuss how ancient philosophies can help us understand the role of leaders in the modern world, this event is also for a good cause: To help reconstruct Plato’s Academy Centre and renew the archeological site in Athens.
I hope you can join us, as it promises to be an interesting and enlightening event!
In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you, dear reader, regarding your thoughts on the matter. It is one of the supreme benefits, after all, of having such a fascinating, contemplative and diverse readership! (As you will no doubt note in today’s wide variety of responses, below).
So I ask you:
Do Leaders NEED myths? Do myths make leaders? And why do we have and desire mythological leaders? Indeed, what is the relationship between Rules and Story-telling?
As always, you can write to me directly at email@example.com or reply to this email.
Now, onto a highly contentious mailbag. We received so much feedback from last week’s question: Why do we worship the extreme?, that I have put a mere smattering of responses... but you will find much food for thought as well as some strongly worded replies...
All the best,
Founder and Director
Enjoy Classical Wisdom’s HOLIDAY BOOK SPECIAL. Subscribe now and receive our beautiful hardback anthology (with free shipping)…a perfect gift for the holiday season, for yourself or those who love!
Extreme is a subjective word not an objective condition. For instance, when the colonists told the King ‘no taxation without representation’ that was very extreme. The Fourth of July is the celebration of one of the most extreme events in history. Worshiping something deemed extreme is not in any way in and of itself bad. What is extreme to you may be middle of the road to me? It is a subjective condition.
What is the golden mean? It is called pi by the Greeks and represents an objective mathematical relationship developed by Euclid. Interestingly the number is roughly 1,618. I note this because moderation implies half way when, in fact, the Golden Mean is over 11% beyond an even split. When applying the Golden mean then it is reasonable and prudent to understand that there is a range of subjective outcomes between fifty percent and 61%. Again this is an aggregate number and reflects an infinite number of applications.
This may be the final number but each transaction may vary from zero to a hundred. The middle way for murder is 0. For killing in a declared war maybe 40. When all subjective standards are applied to every infinite circumstance you only then achieve pi. Since these are subjective your score on each will differ from mine but if all 8 billion people combined all circumstances the mean is pi, or so believes Aristotle. Finally, pi itself is an infinite number because it has no end... just like the desire for conquest his student craved.
You can not get back to it because it is infinite.
Another word for moderate is mediocre. We celebrate excess because that is where change and innovation occurs, at the edges. Most people realize that there is a price to pay in the balance for genius, that one must sacrifice family to professional success, or sanity to creativity. We normies, unwilling or unable to make that sacrifice, may have the better individual life by metrics of wellness and fulfillment, but collectively, as a human species, we are indebted to the immoderation of Einstein and Mozart.
We worship extremes because it is our nature, especially if one looks at the philosophy of Xunzi who looked at human nature as innately obnoxious, in that we are filled with desires. Without the artifice of civilization to keep us at bay via rituals and following laws, we just remain foul, and as Aristotle does say, virtue cannot exist in extremities.
Of late we have little order: people speak loudly, often dress badly, and are often rude, etc. There is a lack of respect in general, and it is not that people want to be disrespectful, but rather they have not been taught what respect means.
To give an example, I have been teaching on University level for many years and though I am retired now since COVID, I have seen a difference in attitude in the past many years. In the beginning of my career I was always addressed with Mr. or Professor, etc. but for the past five years or so I was addressed by my students by my first name. It is not so much that this bothers me, and it generally was not malicious on the part of my students, but this is how they were taught, as many young professors or High School teachers would tell them to call them by their first name, maybe even their parents. This might seem trite but to my interpretation, it is a loss.
Going back to Xunzi, his emphasis on ritual is the key to a well-ordered state, thus mind. Learning respect is the way to the Golden Mean.
-Herman H. San Francisco
This reminds me of Thomas Sowell’s Constrained versus Unconstrained views... which I think will warrant an entire mailbag to itself. But essentially, are humans in their nature inherently good or bad? For the answer certainly determines the political structure… some food for thought!
We worship extremes because we (the collective human consciousness) are hurting and are desperate for a solution to the problem. The media also plays on our hurt consciousness, and indulges us on the promise of "if you only did (fill in the blank), things will go back to normal / be better / be happier , etc”. So a solution to the media problem is to turn off the television, and all devices at some point during our days.
How we get back to it is by balance, but also by right action, honorable action. Instead of ratting on your neighbors, say hello, and ask some questions, maybe invite them over for a meal. Know your values and stick to them. Community, freedom, love, prosperity are a few words I remind myself when I'm not motivated. I have many different interests, don't be afraid to pursue them all, but again, in moderation. If I want to begin a workout routine, make it a habit by starting with 15 minutes a day for 3 days a week. SMART goals: Specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, time bound. Love yourself, know your boundaries. Be curious, but rest. Balance is key. Be the example, and people will follow. I'm noticing that now as I pursue my own goals of manifesting, having a vision board works too, and be organized. There are only so many hours in a day, some hours are for working out, some are for working, some are for play, some are for rest.
I imagine that part of our cultural fascination with extremes exists because they are more entertaining than moderation and modern times permit more varied opportunities for consuming entertainment. Who goes to the circus to see the “moderates” show? It’s the “freak show” that brings in the customers. More fascinating, but not valued or aspired to for oneself.
So there’s also the question of whether the immoderate quality is valued or not. The ancient Greeks did not admire “moderate” athletic performers in their Olympic Games and Aristotle was not considered an “average” intellect. Same for modern times. Conversely, tooth decay is “normal” but no one aspires to unexceptional dental heath.
Additional considerations are whether the quality in question has an adverse effect on physical and mental well being and whether we are seeing it in ourselves or others. For example, the star football player who damages his brain and bones might be “admired” for his performance, even if we would not choose the same bargain for ourselves.
So in summary, if a quality harms our health or is undesirable, we do not generally desire it to extremes in ourselves even though it might be fascinating or admired for its entertainment value in others.
Last but not least, there’s the issue of quantifying the “average”. Easy for objective qualities like tooth decay or body weight. Not so easy for those qualities which are in the mind of the beholder or change with the times. For example, JFK might now be categorized as “alt right” by some in modern times while others might consider Jordan Peterson to be a rational moderate measured against the current benchmarks of wokeness and identity politics.
What helps us live the Golden Mean? --> VIRTUE, VIRTUE, VIRTUE.
Excellent article on the importance of moderation!It highlights balanced moderation's relevance then and now, and is the Antidote for modern societies misguided romance with extremism!
Thanks for posting,
First of all I’d like to say I really appreciate your newsletter, as a person who’s been studying the classics for years it’s heartening to see someone trying to spread their messages.
That said, you asked “what happened to the rule of moderation?” - which even more than the Greeks the Romans were obsessed with.
An answer: Romanticism happened, and we won’t get rid of this worship of excesses until we still laud the likes of a Byron - the ultimate rockstar I’d say - and put emotions and feelings over everything else, even reason, as well as the cult of the individual over the good of the community (for we lost the concept of polis and res publica as well.)
Thanks again for this wonderful newsletter!
Many took umbrage with the specific examples I picked out, perhaps too nonchalantly. Fair enough, I’m the first to admit where I may be wrong... and I’m more than happy to print those who came to the defense of the various selected ‘extreme’ individuals. I was trying to find a way to make the topic modern, but perhaps I should not have picked specific people. Funnily though, the reasons for which I found the person extreme were often not the same for which people were defensive.
As a 61-year-old White, female Lizzo fan who has fought a weight problem literally my entire life, I object to your placing her "morbid obesity" in the same category as "strung out carnivores" and various purveyors of extravagant vice.
Obesity is a disease. It is not a character defect. Many people become obese in early childhood, when they are not in control of their eating habits, and early obesity creates brain and metabolic changes that make it extremely difficult to lose weight and maintain the weight loss, even after bariatric surgery. The factors for obesity also include the gut microbiome we inherit from our mother and that gets maintained or harmed with diet and antibiotics, as well as the composition of formulas and the overall healthiness of the early diet in a country that has one of the worst diets in the developed world.
Obesity is a disease that has been treated as a moral or character flaw for far too long. We know now that telling a morbidly obese person to just eat less and exercise more is a prescription for failure. That might work for a naturally thin person who has put on 20 or 30 pounds in midlife, but it does not work and never has worked for people living with lifelong obesity. It's a medical problem and needs medical research and better solutions than what we have today.
Obese people are subjected to the worst sort of judgment and moral shaming around. What Lizzo does is combat the shame. Obesity causes health problems, but you're better off loving your obese body than you are torturing yourself with shame and feelings of failure.
I would say including Lizzo was an instance of harmartia in the New Testament sense, whereas she is not guilty of harmartia in the Classical sense.
Perhaps Aristotle would not hate Lizzo, Kate Moss or Jordan Peterson. Perhaps the problem is with society's obsession regarding the challenges and struggles of famous people. Perhaps this obsession is extreme. It's definitely oppressive.
What is extreme anyways? And who defines it? Are vegetarians extreme? Vegans? Poor people? Wealthy People? How much exercise or how many yoga classes are considered extreme?
Don't get me wrong. I agree with Aristotle in terms of moderation being a virtue of the good life but I would be very hesitant to judge the lives of others by what I see and not what I know to be true based on facts. Extremes exist but they are not people and behaviors are complicated and need to be seen in context.
Just my opinion. I also recommend Rhianna's Fenty X Savage Fashion Show NO. 1, which celebrates diverse bodies and shut down the Victoria Secret Fashion show a few years ago.
The celebration of diverse bodies broadens the mean and promotes moderation, unlike the unattainable image of skinniness and perfection that has been the only image promoted positively by the media in the past.
Moderation is not sublime in all things, and certainly not in entertainment, though maybe in the quotidian. Look to Aristophanes Clouds or Plato's Symposium - or Harry Styles in concert. Watching others reach for the extremes helps us be satisfied not to be doing so ourselves. And Lizzo is far more than simply an overweight body. Fat shaming is not classical wisdom.
Cheryl A. H
I should be clear there is no shaming here. I’m not equating BMI with morality, intelligence or talent. In fact, I only know of Lizzo because of her Classical references, which obviously I approve of! I’m only saying an extreme BMI is extreme... but also playing a 200 year old crystal flute while almost naked is extreme:
In Aristotle’s world, it is A=A. Nothing more. My inquiries are more directed to the society that elevates Lizzo rather than anything to do with the singer herself. But I should also note that there were many ready to defend Jordan Peterson as well:
I'm not sure who Lizzo is and I know Aristotle would hate Kate Moss, but I think he'd have a very interesting conversation with Jordan Peterson. He seems to me to be preaching the concept of moderation that you rightly point out has been the foundation stone of all ancient wisdom. He is a lone voice of sanity in the wilderness of our extreme, polarized and shouty social discourse.
I highly recommend watching his YouTube interview with Lex Fridman.
Jordan Peterson is an EXTREMIST? When it comes to standing up and defending your freedom, moderation is certain death. When you're defending your family from an assault, only moderation will do? I disagree. Davy Crockett is supposed to have said, "Make SURE you're right, then go ahead". The devil is in the details. How can you be CERTAIN that you're right? All you can do is make your best judgment, proceed and be ready to admit if it turns out you were wrong.
This was a decent article, but I don't see any relation to what you wrote and Jordan Peterson. The other two people in the article header make perfect sense to criticize in this way. I have read most of what Jordan Peterson has written, and the vast majority of his public lectures and podcasts. I have also read Plato and Aristotle, and in my estimation both of those philosophers would be kindred spirits with Jordan Peterson.
Have a great day
What's wrong with Lizzo? Or Kate Moss? Would he hate Yao Ming and Verne Troyer too? Not gonna touch on the third one.
Wow, Jordan Peterson referred to, I'm assuming, as a "high idiot savant..." Interesting take. I actually quite enjoy his podcast on my long drives home from work and have read his books. I'm curious if you have actually listened to his podcast or read his works? I'm having a very hard time seeing him as an "extreme." Reason and logic dictate his work. Anyways, I always enjoy reading the Classical Wisdom. Thanks Anya!
Perhaps I should clarify - I was thinking of Jordan Peterson’s meat only diet... I was not thinking of him when I said idiot savants.