Tall poppies, crabs and success

There for the lopping

There for the lopping

Since success and the ways of losing as well as gaining it are one half of the manuscript I’m currently re-writing, I found myself pondering the famous Tall Poppy Syndrome.

I always assumed that all English-speaking people used the term, which refers to the quasi-socialistic perversion–or egalitarian instinct, depending on how you look at it–of cutting down anybody who stands out for merit, success and achievement. But apparently it’s mainly a UK, Aussie and Kiwi thing. Nick Faldo, for instance, has been tall-poppied.

Americans instead have the crab mentality. I like that metaphor because it’s vivid: Crabs really do pull other crabs back down if one of them tries to claw himself out of a bucket.

Scandinavians apparently have the Jante Law, after a fictional town called Jante in which the rules were:

  1. Don’t think that you are special.
  2. Don’t think that you are of the same standing as us.
  3. Don’t think that you are smarter than us.
  4. Don’t fancy yourself as being better than us.
  5. Don’t think that you know more than us.
  6. Don’t think that you are more important than us.
  7. Don’t think that you are good at anything.
  8. Don’t laugh at us.
  9. Don’t think that anyone of us cares about you.
  10. Don’t think that you can teach us anything.

So why the metaphor tall poppy?

Surprisingly, it turns out that two of “my guys,” Aristotle and Livy, were involved.

Aristotle (Politics, V.10) has the following passage:

Periander [a tyrant of Corinth] advised Thrasybulus [a tyrant of Miletus and his friend] by cutting the tops of the tallest ears of corn, meaning that he must always put out of the way the citizens who overtop the rest.

This is probably where Livy got the idea for his passage in Book I, 54 about the Roman tyrant Tarquin, who was asked by his son for advice on how to rule:

The king [Tarquin senior] went into the palace-garden, deep in thought, his son’s messenger following him. As he walked along in silence it is said that he struck off the tallest poppy-heads with his stick. Tired of asking and waiting for an answer … the messenger returned to [the land the son was now ruling] and reported what he had said and seen, adding that the king, whether through temper or personal aversion or the arrogance which was natural to him, had not uttered a single word. When it had become clear to Sextus what his father meant him to understand by his mysterious silent action, he proceeded to get rid of the foremost men of the State by traducing some of them to the people, whilst others fell victims to their own unpopularity. Many were publicly executed, some against whom no plausible charges could be brought were secretly assassinated.

A purge, in other words.

So the meaning has evolved. Whereas it used to refer to the powerful cutting down potential rivals, it now refers to the envious cutting down those whom they consider uppity. Quite a big shift. Disgusting all the way through. Worth contemplating.

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Socrates and the original think tank



And so we continue this thread on Socrates, and the profound ways that he is still with us today.

We’ve been looking at his ideas about conversations, good and bad, and his skepticism toward writing (as opposed to oral conversation). But what did this in fact lead to, in practical terms?

It led to a weird, perambulatory kind of school, as Socrates walked around with various people, mostly younger, engrossed in conversation. This would ultimately get him in trouble, of course. But before it got him killed, it merely raised eyebrows.

Aristophanes, the greatest comedian of ancient Greece and Socrates’ most cutting parodist, invented a word for this kind of purposeful and moderated conversation, in his play the Clouds: a thinkery (phrontisterion).

A think tank, in other words.

Indeed, think tanks are among Socrates’ legacies. His student Plato took over a grove dedicated to Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and founded his Academy, which lasted for three hundred years, throughout the entire Hellenistic era.

One of the people perambulating and thinking and conversing at that Academy was Aristotle, who eventually took over another grove, dedicated to Apollo, the god of wisdom (and other things), and also started a think tank, called the Lyceum.

In time, Academy and Lyceum became the roots for “school” in many languages, depending on whether the insitution leant toward Platonism or Aristotelianism. But the more direct descendants today might be the likes of Heritage, Cato and Tellus.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We need to start looking at whether Socrates actually practiced what he preached in his peculiar style of conversation. Stay tuned.

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Success, the good life and “flow”

Aristotle, an early positive psychologist

Aristotle, an early positive psychologist

I consider myself–on the whole, give or take–lucky. That’s because I’ve been able to arrange my life in such a way that I spend a fairly large share of it doing something that both suits and pleases me: writing. When I write–whether for The Economist or my book, or even on this little blog–I tend to forget myself and become absorbed in the activity. This is a state that psychologists and new-agey types call flow.

Flow is really important, because it is the basic ingredient of “the good life,” as opposed to the “pleasant life” or the “meaningful life”.

I’m getting those terms from Martin Seligman, one of the founders of Positive Psychology. Watch this fascinating talk by him at the TED conference in 2004.

The premise of Positive Psychology is that traditional psychology has been one-sided by studying only miserable people and freaks and trying to devise ways of ameliorating their misery. Traditional psychologists did not study happy people and geniuses, and did not try to figure out what made these people so. Positive psychology does precisely that. It

  • studies strengths as well as weaknesses
  • tries to build strengths rather than ameliorate damage
  • tries to figure out what makes lives fulfilling

And so we get to the three kinds of “happy” lives: Pleasant, Good and Meaningful.

The pleasant life is about maximizing pleasures. Savoring good food and sex, enjoying sunsets, and so forth. This is great, but there are two problems. 1) The ability to enjoy pleasure is, perhaps surprisingly, hereditary. You’re born with a natural limit on your savoring. 2) Pleasure habituates. The first scoop of gelato tastes divine, the second good, the third fine, the fourth so-so, the fifth is mildly off-putting, the sixth leaves you sick of it forever.

The good life is the one Aristotle talked about a lot. It comes from achieving flow. Parenting, writing, gardening–whatever you’re doing, if you merge with an activity that you are good at, and you do that on a regular basis, then you lead a good life. If you are good with people and happen to be bagging groceries in a supermarket for a living, you can turn the bagging into a social occasion and achieve flow.

The meaningful life is when you use your strengths not just for flow but for something larger than you. Serving others, basically.

The “full life” is defined as having all three. In the context of my book, it might also be called: Success.

Socratic irony

Somewhat unexpectedly, the topic of irony is becoming a subsidiary thread in the Hannibal Blog. It started here, continued here and, I’m sure, will continue even more. You recall that my definition of irony is “the savoring of contradictions in life and people (others and yourself) and of turns of phrase that are slightly and adroitly off-key and thus meaningfully surprising.” This wording found approval, at a minimum, by Cheri.

Suddenly, however, I find the plot thickening. Robert Bartlett, a professor at Emory University who teaches this course on the three greatest Greek thinkers, informs me that

Irony in its original Socratic sense, in Greek eironeia, is really pretty different. In brief, it’s the habit of concealing one’s superiority. Aristotle, in the Ethics, lists irony as a vice, though he says it’s a vice characteristic of those who are refined.

Why refined? Because if irony is a vice opposed to the virtue of truthfulness, it is a kind of deceit. It is also much better or more attractive than the vice of boasting, of claiming to be more than you are. The ironic person claims to be less than he is, and in particular to be less wise. Aristotle, by the way, gives only one example of the ironic person: Socrates.

Socrates is famous, then, for his irony, for his kind of graceful concealment of his wisdom; he’s not a boaster, in this sense. This means that Plato chose as his spokesman, or at least as the central character in almost all the dialogues, an ironist, somebody who’s not altogether frank.

This is, of course, very different than my definition of irony. Then again, as I think about it, the genealogy does show up even in the modern phenotype. Which means: For those of us today who appreciate irony, it may  be worth remembering what the Athenians did to Socrates, and what many societies would like to do to ironists. Sarah Palin might claim afterwards that she mistook me for a moose. Put differently, here is the great man as the hemlock does its lethal work: