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The Dynamic Equilibrium of Humanity

A few days ago, Dr. Cyril Thiaudière, archaeological expert in the jewellery and trinkets of the ancient Mediterranean, posted the following picture on LinkedIn, ‘The Ship in the Storm’ by Lagorio:

It is a beautiful picture and it really struck a chord with me for two reasons. Secondly, the Turner-esque features in the tones of the sea and the light behind the clouds is stunning. Firstly, and this is very random, it reminded me of a political metaphor in one of my favourite Greek historians (okay, yes I have Classics and Ancient stuff on the brain, but bear with me), Polybius. Now, the ship of state is not exactly new and it was certainly not invented by Polybius. One of our earliest surviving literary examples comes from Alcaeus, the lyric poet, lamenting the political woes of his native Mytilene. His description may well have influenced Horace’s lovely Ode 1.14, where he mournfully calls after the ramshackle boat drifting away before his eyes. There is some debate about whether this is the ship of state or an ageing lover. However, given Horace’s usual contempt for ageing lovers, and the sad tone of the Roman odes (though this is a somewhat simplistic argument), Horace seems genuinely to have been upset by his fragile, tottering home, riven by civil way.

However, Polybius’ depiction is a very interesting twist. We cannot be sure whether Polybius invented this version, but it does not matter. It has a very powerful resonance for the context in which he uses it. In book 6, Polybius seeks to explain the stability of the Roman politeia (political composition) in terms of its different political elements, consuls (kingly power, divided between two), the senate (aristocratic power, i.e. power of the best men as chosen by the people, no hereditary peerages in the ancient Greek definition), and the popular assemblies (democratic power). At 6.10, Polybius is talking about Lycurgus (the ‘founder’ of the Spartan politeia – historical or legendary. He designed the Spartan politeia to achieve stability, Rome achieved it via experience. The image Polybius used to convey this stability is a ship that is antiploia. This is a very hard term to translate. ‘Ship sailing close to the wind’ is one students of Polybius will be familiar with. But this does not capture the ‘anti-‘ part of the term at all. The closest is ‘boat in conflicting breezes’, the breezes referring to the different elements of political power. When the sea is calm with gently conflicting winds, the boat safely rocks and stays afloat and achieves stability from the delicate equilibrium of the elements (I always think of the image when I look out of my front window and see the gently rocking buoy a little outside the harbour). What is Polybius telling us:

· A.. Human society is not static, it is dynamic – if human beings do not stand still, how can


· B. Therefore, society itself is a delicate equilibrium requiring the management of conflicting

human forces and influences.

This could not be more pertinent to where we are today. Societies are varied, comprised of many different elements. If one waxes too strong to the detriment of the others’ lives and well-being, the steadily rocking boat in the sea bucks in one direction, and if the balance cannot be settled and harmony achieves, it will sink. What does the sinking ship of state look like? For Polybius, an angry people toppling the tyrant or a bunch of oligarchs, in a democracy, the triumph of a violent majority, claiming to champion the cause of democracy, while oppressing the minority. What would be the equivalent today? The same notions of exclusion, resentment, oppression under a self-righteous gloss or specious claim to liberty will always, I suspect, be recurring traits of such events. Can we see this happening in societies today? Yes. More importantly, how do we solve the problem? For Polybius, even Rome, with its stable mixed-politeia was certainly not immune and only ‘had the breaks on’ (Walbank (1995) ‘Polybius’ Perception of the One and the Many’, in Leaders and Masses in the Roman World). Perhaps, we, too, cannot avoid it, but perhaps we can learn to recognise, negotiate, and thus, help to arrest or at least mitigate the rocking of the boat.

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