At the temple of Apollo at Delphi, the residence of the fabled Oracle, a golden “E” hung in the entranceway and no one knew what it meant. Originally, it was a large wooden “E,” and over the centuries, various potentates replaced it with increasingly expensive materials. Caesar Augustus donated a solid gold “E.”
Even ancient scholars did not know the meaning. Plutarch, the famous Greco-Roman author, became a priest at Delphi and wrote an essay with an overview of five theories. Other scholars, over the centuries, have also put forth their theories.
So it might be a bit rash of me, a high school history teacher in 2018, to reject their solutions and propose my own.
The main issue with the previous solutions is the translation and interpretation of the third maxim, or warning. Visitors to the temple were greeted by three warnings (which were carved on a pillar, into a wall, or hanging in the entranceway, depending on the historical source).
The first two warnings are famous:
“Nothing in Excess!”
These are translated in various ways, but the underlying meaning is clear. However, the third warning has two translations that do not seem consistent:
“Make a pledge and mischief is nigh!” or
“Give surety, get ruin!”
Almost every available source has some version of these two; the sources then wax poetic. What is missing from all of these translations is cultural context:
Before the reforms of Solon, the renowned Athenian leader, there was a system in which you could borrow money and offer yourself as collateral. Failure to repay the loan would result in your enslavement.
The warning is thus very practical and philosophical (like the first two). If you are so desperate as to offer your freedom as collateral (pledge or surety), you are guaranteed to become a slave. Or more laconically,
“Bet your freedom, guarantee your slavery!”
It is a bracing formulation of the value of freedom, so often discussed by ancient philosophers.
So how does this connect to the golden “E?” A Socratic dialogue gives a clue:
In Plato’s Charmides, the character, Critias, that Socrates is questioning, makes an interesting observation:
“‘Know thyself!’ and ‘Be Temperate!’ are the same…” (“Be temperate” is an alternative translation of “Nothing in Excess.”) They go on to discuss the idea that self-knowledge leads to temperance, or the avoidance of excess.
And there, the mystery is broken wide open:
All three Delphic warnings are the same. What would cause someone to offer themselves as collateral? Excess. How do you know yourself? Observing yourself when you are free. How do you avoid excess? Knowing yourself. And on and on.
Or more pithily: self-knowledge leads to self-control which leads to freedom which leads to self-knowledge.
The “E” is not an “E” but an illustration of the three warnings as three horizontal lines and the vital connection between the three as the vertical line.
“Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave.”
― Frederick Douglass
Tom Wolfe, the famous author of The Right Stuff and Bonfire of the Vanities, was discussing the meaning of the “liberal arts.” He relates a fascinating piece of history: the liberal arts (or ars liberalis) come from ancient Rome. The Romans allowed their slaves to be educated, but only in specific, useful, subjects, like engineering and math. They were forbidden from learning history and philosophy, because that would make them rebellious, dangerous, and free.
It is fairly amazing that the very same STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects that receive gobs of money and acres of media coverage are the exact ones to which Greek slaves in Rome were limited.
,“No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.”
- Frederick Douglass
Some historians have a theory about recent history: technological progress was caused by the freeing of slaves.
Rome reached a technological plateau; they kept a massive number of slaves. It was not until the Enlightenment, with the freeing of slaves, that technology really exploded. The lack of cheap labor caused people to look for labor saving devices. The historians point to several instances, in places with a density of slaves, in which there was a resistance to the implementation of modern technology.
The creepy part of the theory is that it gives you a window into slave owning. You treat your technology, according to the theory, exactly like a slave: nice, perhaps, when it is working well, and with a fury when it hesitates. And you would be loath to give it up: would you go without your computer? (Would you free your iPhone?)
“I have observed this in my experience of slavery - that whenever my condition was improved, instead of increasing my contentment, it only increased my desire to be free…”
― Frederick Douglass
The artificial intelligence enthusiasts are not mentioning a clear, inescapable problem with their technological ambitions: they wish to create slaves.
Artificial intelligence has had many definitions, but the recent proponents are looking to create sentient computers; sentient, meaning self-aware and capable of complex thought. These conscious computers, if possible, will solve the world’s problems, make our lives easier, treat our diseases, clean our streets, prepare our food, and care for our children.
Herein lies the paradox: in order for computers to be able to do these complex tasks, they must be self-aware. If they are not self-aware, they probably will not be very useful.
But if the computers are self-aware, two simple questions present themselves: what if they do not want to do that work? What if they refuse?
“Those who profess to favor freedom, and deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground…”
― Frederick Douglass
Our visions of the future, which underlie all of our plans and policies, are defined by what they lack: a lack of any work, a lack of messy politics and a lack of business rivalries. Look at any utopian vision from the mid 1800's onward: clean, peaceful, and technocratic. Dystopian visions make the same point in the opposite direction: no leisure, chaotic cities, and corruption.
These visions are the result of a one-sidedness in our thinking; we are only planning for future consumption, and therefore think about the future like we think about our retirements.
But humans are happiest when facing the adventure and glory of productive challenges. There needs to be a revolution in how we imagine the future; it needs a vision of work.
“I am certain that there is nothing good, great or desirable which man can possess in this world, that does not come by some kind of labor...”
― Frederick Douglass
There is a relevant linguistic paradox: the words create and produce have very similar denotations, but creativity and productivity have almost opposite connotations.
The technocrats planning our futures - the economists, statisticians, engineers and policy-makers - are obsessed with productivity. They themselves are very productive human beings: first in their classes, extremely efficient, and great at eliminating redundancies.
Productivity only creates a space, however, for creativity. The technology world is remarkable for its lack of aesthetic vision. Steve Jobs, of course, is the exception that proves this rule.
It is ironic that our futures are being produced by people with the same backgrounds and limitations as the Greek slaves of Ancient Rome.
I'm an entrepreneur and I teach math, history, economics, and fitness. I'm looking for arguments.