Thursday, March 23, 2000

Herodotus and R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Lately, we at Classics Corner have been annoying our dwindling circle of friends with stories from Herodotus, the fifth century historian who first established digression as a serious art form.

For example, within his story of the rise and fall of King Apries, who ruled Egypt from 588-569 BC, our guide Herodotus informs us off-handedly that “In Egypt there are seven classes, which are called, respectively, priests, warriors, cowherds, swineherds, shopkeepers, interpreters, and pilots.”

Classes in Egypt were primarily, it seems, associated with occupational status, and only secondarily with economic position. This got me to thinking about our own class structure, which hopelessly confuses most of us, and how it might look if we took a similar approach.

Movie stars would clearly be our royalty, and not just because they are obscenely and unjustifiably rich. We admire the high moral tone of Susan Sarandon, the glibness of Billy Crystal, and the preternaturally huge mouth of Julia Roberts. We aspire to the beefcake sensitivity of Bruce Willis, the passionate intelligence of Denzel Washington, and the empty charm of Tom Cruise. We are all idolaters, basking in the aura of the unreal.

Next, perhaps, would come rich software geeks. Herodotus tells a story about Amasis, a warrior who challenges Apries for the throne. When the King summons Amasis, the warrior lifts himself from his horse, farts, and tells the messenger “take that back to the King.” If one substitutes Bill Gates and the Justice Department, the parallel is immediately clear.

Cowherds and swineherds were respected for their proximate relation to the sacred. These would now be known as “consultants,” that shadowy variety of “knowledge worker” that gets several hundred dollars an hour for having mastered the arcane ability to utter phrases that none of us understand.

Egyptians, like the Greeks after them, held shopkeeping in relatively low regard. That was more of a Phoenician thing. We, on the other hand, respect private initiative, although we actually shop at Costco, Borders, and Home Depot, thus ensuring our children a monolithic future of highly controlled labor at the hands of others.

And speaking of the future, while teachers are not at rock bottom, they must be close. My sister-in law is a grade school teacher. She gets to form young minds without the benefit of books, supplies, or a school system that gives a shit about children. She may as well be a prison guard. In fact, she’d get paid a lot more if she was.

Pilots, in Egypt, were on the bottom. These, I think, were the many. They were the people who dragged the stones for the pyramids. They dug the canals from the Nile, and built the massive walls that surrounded their cities.

In short, they were the people who did all the work.

I always laugh when I talk to professionals who say they work hard and deserve their pay. I think of landscapers, dishwashers, and factory workers. I think of seamstresses and childcare workers and hospital attendants, many of whom work several jobs to make ends meet. And then I think that if hard work and high pay had any correlation at all, things for most of us would be very different.

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