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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Beware the Catos in your life

Cato the Elder

This face says it all. It is the misanthropic, miserly, humorless, prurient snout of Marcus Porcius Cato, better known as Cato the Elder.

“Hell is other people,” said Jean-Paul Sartre, and I’m sure he had people such as Cato in mind. Cato showed up in ancient Rome wherever people were having fun to make them feel guilty and sinful. Whenever anybody succeeded and earned fame or wealth or glory, Cato was there to dig up some dirt, spread a rumor, question some expense account (literally), all in order to take that person down a few notches.

If he had been alive in another era, he might have sat on the tribunals of the Spanish Inquisition. Or he might have been Senator Joseph McCarthy, or Kenneth Starr, or anybody who devotes his life to hounding others and destroying reputations.

Cato’s most famous victim was one of my heroes, and one of the main characters in my book, the great Scipio Africanus. Cato envied and hated him. So he filed charge after charge, looking through every receipt in the great Scipio’s accounts, until Scipio was simply fed up and went into exile.

After Scipio died (in the same year as Hannibal), Cato needed a new target for his venom. He chose all of Carthage, which was now a docile and submissive part of the Roman empire. Carthago delenda est! Cato said at the end of every speech he gave, no matter what it was about.

And that is what the Romans eventually did. They ethnically cleansed the entire city of Carthage and razed it to the ground.

The lesson? Many. But one premise of my book is that the same archetypal chracters appear again and again in history and in our own lives. Learn to recognize them, especially the Catos. They might be in the next cubicle, or one row behind you in the auditorium. They might be your boss or your employee, or your ex-spouse or a spurned lover. Somewhere, there is someone who hates to see you happy and successful and will exert all his energy to bring you down.

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