Saturday, September 4, 2010

Hedgehogs and Profound Thoughts...

I'm currently reading "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" by Murial Barbery, which was originally written in French but I'm reading the English translation. Prior to buying the book I read a review that said it doesn't particularly suit British tastes because it has no obvious plot. That's pretty true, and it's rather just a series of musings from two somewhat related but independent commentators.

They comment on a great deal of things and are keen to philosophise. Sometimes I find how it's presented rather distasteful, but it's occasionally beautiful and provoking (although I'm constantly wondering if the turn of phrase really conveys the meaning intended by the original French or if it's a best fit scenario).

One of the "profound thoughts" (the chapter really has this name) is that the world is run by "weak" men. They are the masters of language but they couldn't protect their own garden, kill an animal for food or any other more "primal" activities. This immediately led me to think about Cicero - does he qualify as a "weak" man, insomuch as he was a true master of language but not famed for his warrior spirit (in the primal sense of the word, anyway)? I suppose the answer is - yes.

The book considers this somewhat perverse or contra to something vital. I partially agree, but in the context of Cicero it's worth remembering that he's somewhat of an exception. Most of the figures of the later Republic that Cicero rubbed shoulders with were also experts in the realms of language yet were also great warriors (or Generals, at least). Caesar, for example (as he always is!), displays an amazing ability for clearness in his use of Latin and his warrior attributes are well documented.

Many ancient Romans, then, seem to combine both a mastery of language and primal abilities that is lacking in the brokers of power in modern times. Times have changed. Skill in speaking and sneakiness has outstripped more "honest" and primal ability (this may be the natural order of things, I don't know) but I do hark for what was before. I don't like quite so much talk. In this respect, I think the book has tapped into something interesting.

What is (intrinsically better) power through strength or power through eloquence? The question is then begged, though, can't you have both? I think many ancient Romans did, and accepting one as better than the other (but considering them independent) as Barbery does is missing the point a little.