seven sages: context of the Socratic method

A mosaic showing seven men dressed in classical garments in a classical setting was buried in Pompeii when Mount Vesuvius exploded in 79 GC.  The mosaic probably dates from the early first century BGC and probably was a copy of a late-fourth century Athenian painting.  Commonly described as depicting Plato’s Academy, it also represents an archaic Greek tradition of seven sages.  This tradition was widely discussed in fourth-century Athens.[1]

The men in the mosaic are engaged in a scholarly dispute.  Three men look at another diadem-wearing man on the far left, who seems to be reading a scroll that the mosaic artist did not represent.  Two other men follow a third  figure pointing to a globe in the center. All of the first group hold scrolls.  Moreover, the figure on the far left is standing next to an opened box in which the scrolls would fit.  None of the second group hold scrolls.  Written texts thus seem to be an important aspect of the men’s oral dispute.[2]

The Socratic Method as currently understood is associated with oral questions and responses.  The mosaic suggests that, perhaps as early as the late-fourth century BGC, studying texts was an important, and perhaps controversial, aspect of oral school teaching.  The Socratic Method that Plato institutionalized in his Academy apparently co-existed with social, textual study.

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For the image above, I’ve cropped the mosaic’s border to focus on the action.  The full image is shown at higher resolution at the History of Ancient Rome website.  The mosaic, which is held in Italy’s National Archaeological Museum in Naples, is on display through March 22, 2009, at the U.S. National Gallery’s exhibition, Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture around the Bay of Naples.

[1] The city on the upper right and the olive tree in the middle (small green leaves, black olives) allude to Plato’s Academy in Athens.  The catalog for the Pompeii exhibition at the National Gallery states that most scholars agree that the figure in the middle (highest figure) is Plato.  But the supporting evidence for this view is meager.  On the dating of the mosaic, see Westgate, Ruth (2000) “Pavimenta atque emblemata vermiculata: Regional Styles in Hellenistic Mosaic and the First Mosaics at Pompeii,” American Journal of Archaeology, v. 104, n. 2, pp. 255-75. On the Greek scene that the mosaic represents, see Elderkin, G.W. (1935) “Two Mosaics Representing the Seven Wise Men,” American Journal of Archaeology, v. 39, n. 1, pp. 92-111. Id. associates the mosaic with a painting of Demetrius Phalereus at the Athenian Lyceum and dates its composition between 317 BGC and 307 BGC. An alternate theory places the painting at the sepulchral monument of Isocrates, erected about 338 BGC (id. p. 100). On representations of the seven wise men, see Richter, Gisela Marie Augusta (1965) The portraits of the Greeks. [London]: Phaidon Press, pp. 81-82, figs. 314-320.  For the earliest citation of the seven wise men in extant Greek literature, see Plato, Protagoras, 343A.

[2] Writing about the same time as Plato, Xenophon of Athens, in his Memorabilia, has Socrates saying, “The treasures also of the wise of old, written and bequeathed in their books [scrolls], I unfold and peruse in common with my friends.”  (Mem. 1.6.14)  The mosaic might in part be an allusion to this Socratic image.  Socrates was executed in 399 BGC, before the formation of Plato’s Academy.  The box may be an allusion to the cista mystica, a sacred chest used to house snakes in the mystery cults.  A similar mosaic, dating to the second century GC and found in Sarsina in Northern Umbria, now the Villa Albani, shows the figure on the left holding a snake.  See Richter (1965) fig. 319.  or Elderkin (1935) Plate XXII.B. Note that the figure on the left is the only figure wearing a diadem.  Interpreted as a cista mystica, the box, diadem, and scroll suggests other-worldly knowledge, in contrast to the central figure’s pointing to the world.

COB-30: maintaining position

Many workers in entrepreneurial, innovative, and initiative-oriented positions take holidays about this time of year.  Bureaucratic work allows no such change.

The telephone system must continue to connect calls, the mail must continue to be carried, light must continue to shine, wind must continue to blow, and the government must continue to function.  Similarly, the records, forms, and documents that have been created throughout the year must be sustained and preserved.  Bureaucrats do that.

Day in and day out, bureaucrats are always ready to answer the call.  Bureaucrats save the world.

elberry at The Lumber Room discusses his difficulties with job interviews. The most important point is how he got his present job: “No one else turned up for the interviews and i’d already been doing the job as a temp for 6 or so months, so they gave it to me.” Being there is the most important responsibility in bureaucratic jobs.

esr at Armed and Dangerous asks, “Open Source – Can It Innovate?”  This question is a crucial determinant of open source’s bureaucratic potential. Sadly, there’s some indication that it can, but I would suggest a fuller study of the matter.  More importantly, the safe choice is obvious:

Corporations exist to mitigate investment risk. The large and more stable a corporation is, the more resistant it is to disruption in its practices and business model including the unvoidable short-term disruptions from what might be long-term innovative gain. Net-present-value accounting therefore almost always leads to the conclusion that innovation is a mistake.

Don’t make the mistake of innovating. Go with the largest and most stable corporation you can find, or even better, a major multi-national, multi-lateral, mult-purpose cooperative.

xkcd provides useful instruction on understanding flowcharts.  Bureaucrats find flowcharts particularly helpful for planning flipchart presentations.

Dave Taylor’s business blog at presents a bureaucratic presss release announcing a new release of the fighting game Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe.  Dave wants something more visually engaging.  But press releases are designed for newspaper journalists.  When’s the last time you show a visually engaging newspaper?

Joe Wikert has suffered business book breakdown.  He laments:

So much of what’s out there seems to be either a simple restating of the completely obvious or 4 pages of insight buried in 300 pages of filler.  Why is it so much easier (and significantly more rewarding) to find greater value in a 2- or 3-screen online article than a business book?

Joe really needs to understand better modern business.  The business of business is bureaucracy.  Business books write it like it is.

In the Worcester College Record for 2008, Provost Dick Smethurst reports “the defeat of the bureaucratic Joint Resource Allocation Mechanism proposals.”  We regret that Oxford will not be joining the modern age of bureaucracy.

The Little Professor, who is a literature professor, sympathetically and insightfully affirms bureaucracy in her review of “The Fiction of Development: Literary Representation as a Source of Authoritative Knowledge.”  She highlights two claims from this outrageous article:

  1. “the themes emanating from development policy documents – the official texts produced by multilateral development agencies, government planning offices, and NGOs – can often be rather starkly contrasted with those of fictional writing on development” (4)
  2. “fictional accounts of development can sometimes reveal different sides to the experience of development and may sometimes even do a ‘better’ job of conveying the complexities of development than research-based accounts” (7)

From being highly underdeveloped, appreciation for reading and writing fiction is now quite advanced. Fiction that is published and becomes popular, or even just attracts some notice, is only a very small share of the fiction currently produced in the world.  We suspect that that the publishing industry, retail markets, and human nature significantly affect the content of fiction that attracts attention.

Moreover, stammering, mumbling, and rubbing your toe on the ground can also convey well the complexities of development.  But the point isn’t to convey complexities; it’s to produce large volumes of documents.  No one does that better than bureaucrats. There are three authors of this 17-page document: David Lewis, Dennis Rogers, and Michael Woolcock.  They are a Reader in Social Policy and a Lecturer in Urban Development in the Department of Social Policy and the Department of Geography and Environment at the London School of Economics, and a Senior Social Scientist with the World Bank’s Development Research Group.  These are respectable bureaucratic positions.  I would have expected better from their holders.

That’s all for this month’s Carnival of Bureaucrats. Submit your blog article to the next edition using our carnival submission form. Submissions should conform to the Carnival’s regulations. Past editions of the Carnival of Bureaucrats can be found on the Carnival’s category page.

dear one

My eyes and nose are raining on my navel.
I’m sneezing thunderstorms.
How’s the weather around you?

The inside of my nose itches.
The outside has tissue burns.
How’s your tan?

My head feels like a cantaloupe
that’s gotten moldy.
I hope you’re feeling well.

I’ve got a cold. My room
is cold. Winter is coming.

I’m thinking of you.