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16 October 2013
“Religion is seen by the common people as true, by the wise as untrue, and by the rulers as useful.”
This epigram is usually attributed to Seneca the Younger, who lived from 4 BC to 65 AD. The only trouble is that there is no trace of it in the Roman philosopher’s works. We cite it, nonetheless, as being worthy of note, regardless of who said it. Se non è vero, è ben trovato. In fact, one might ask, does it really matter who it is that has said something? Surely, what matters is the value of what is said, not who said it? In our celebrity-obsessed times, too often the degree of attention paid to a statement is directly proportional not to its originality but rather to the fame of its author. Indeed, the more famous the speaker, the less significance we demand of their pronouncements. For instance, whatever banality emanates from the mouth of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, heir to the British throne, the royal hack pack is sure to pick it up and put it about. I remember Big Apple novelist Jay McInerney saying that when he was an unknown and struggling writer no one paid a blind bit of attention to what he said. Once he had hit the big time, however, starting with his 1984 novel “Bright Lights, Big City”, people started to hang on his every word – even when he was saying exactly the same things that he had been saying, to general indifference, before he became famous. As to the origin of the remark attributed to Seneca, the locus classicus is probably not to be found in the work of a Latin writer but is rather a passage in “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” by English historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794): “The policy of the emperors and the senate, as far as it concerned religion, was happily seconded by the reflections of the enlightened, and by the habits of the superstitious, part of their subjects. The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.” (Vol. I, Chap. II, Part I, section I).
You might perhaps care to view some of our earlier posts. For instance:
1. Why? or How? That is the question (3 Jan 2012)
2. Partitocracy v. Democracy (20 July 2012)
3. The shoddiest possible goods at the highest possible prices (2 Feb 2012)
4. Capitalism in practice (4 July 2012)
5.Ladder (21 June 2012)
6. A tale of two cities (1) (6 June 2012)
7. A tale of two cities (2) (7 June 2012)
8. Where’s the beef? Ontology and tinned meat (31 Jan 2012)
Every so often we shall change this sample of previously published posts.