Friday, January 13, 2006
Custom is King
In The Histories of Herodotus, we read of the injuries that Cambyses, king of Persia, inflicted upon the people of Egypt in the 6th century BC. Herodotus himself denounces the king for violating Egyptian custom. Only a madman, he insists, would flout the customs of another people, however contrary and strange they may seem. Both for the sophists and for Plato, on the other hand, Egyptian custom would be an irrelevant consideration. The case for them could only depend upon a universal standard of justice, not local convention. They would each judge Cambyses differently, but only because their conception of the universal standard was different. The standard of the sophists, advocated most famously by Callicles in Plato’s Gorgias, called for the unrestrained satisfaction of desire in porportion to one’s ability and power, that of Plato the rational restriction of desire in the interests of the health both of the individual himself and of the ideal state. By the former measure, Cambyses is acquitted, by the latter condemned. Now, the moral tradition of the West has followed Plato. His philosophy has been reworked into a variety of systems, both religious and strictly philosophical, idealistic and ostensibly empirical. Regardless of the form, however, if a system would convict the Persian king of criminal immorality according to a universal and invariable structure of right and wrong, its debt to Platonism is direct. Nietzsche agreed with Callicles, but we need to scrutinize Nietzsche more carefully. He certainly broke with the Western ethical tradition by taking up the cause of the sophists, but he accepted the orthodox interpretation that the sophists represented the antithesis of Plato. In fact they did not, in spite of the plain contrast of their final judgements in a case like Cambyses’. Both were universalists, proponents of a new perspective, and so was Nietzsche, when the perspective was no longer new. The real antithesis lies in Herodotus, because custom, which varied from people to people, did not tolerate universal mandate. If it had been customary among Egyptians to offer themselves to a visiting sovereign for unlimited abuse, Herodotus would not have found the actions of Cambyses objectionable. By contrast, regardless of local circumstances, the justice of Callicles would instruct Cambyses to satisfy his will at the expense of the weaker people, that of Plato, to show rational restraint. Which of these three perceptions of morality makes the most sense? Perhaps we are each secretly Nietzschean and take great delight in contemplating the exercise of power as irresistable as that of the king of ancient Persia. Perhaps again not. Would we choose Plato? We would have to, if we wanted to be considered moral according to the standards of our age. What about someone who saw logic only in the argument of Herodotus? Would he be more controversial even than Nietzsche himself? Or would his isolation be so extreme as to render him inconsequential?