Signs of the times

A reader last week wrote in to complain that I had cut a joke out of his letter. It was humour along the lines that Scotsmen are mean, the Welsh love their sheep and the Irish are all thick. It wasn’t offensive per se but such humour seems dated and unnecessary, which was why I cut it, but there’s also the chance it might have offended someone.

Muttering (as much as one can in an email) about political correctness, our correspondent complained sadly: “It’s a sign of the times.”

I emailed back and said yes, it was, but so was the fact that he’d emailed it using a computer across and interconnected network of other computers, probably from a smart phone or tablet.
Other “signs of the times” include hip replacements as the norm, vastly improved life expectancy, satellite television, increased leisure time, solar panels and the lack of a feudal system.
Things change, all the time, mostly for the good. You can’t pick and choose.

It’s human nature to think that everything that came before is good and the future can only be worse; people have probably been thinking like this since the dawn of time. (“Fire? No good will come of it, it’s downhill from here if you ask me”. “Clothes? Unnatural and heretical! Earth Mother would have given us fur like the monkeys if She didn’t think skin was enough.”)

Sadly, some things never do change. I recently came across the Greek law-maker Solon, who tried to legislate against political, economic, and moral decline in Athens, and is often credited with having laid the foundations for Athenian democracy, which of course means he pretty well invented it.

I wasn’t reading a book on democracy (the above was from Wikipedia and all new to me) but a book on spiders, which included Solon because he said: “Laws are like spiders’ webs which, if anything small falls into them they ensnare it, but large things break through and escape.”

He lived from 638BC to 558 BC, so 2,600 years ago people were muttering things like “one law for the rich and one for the rest of us” and “we’re not really all in together”, though in those days they were thetes (manual labourers) and not Daily Mirror readers moaning that rich people get treated differently or hand-wringing Guardian readers.

At roughly the same time, one Siddhartha Gautama was offering advice to politicians on how to run a happy country, and, again, little has changed.

Gautama lived sometime between 600 and 400BC (Wikipedia is uncertain on the matter) and is better known as Shakyamuni or simply the Buddha. His advice was for kings but would equally stand for governments and it’s enlightening to realise that what people moaned about in 500BC was remarkably similar to tabloid headlines today.

According to Buddha, governments should (and refraining from any sarcastic comments about our MPs — you can fill in your own):

● be generous and charitable, and give away wealth not crave it;

● have a high moral character, and not destroy life, cheat, steal, lie, deceive others, commit adultery or drink alcohol;

● sacrifice everything for the good of the people, including personal comfort;

● be honest and act with integrity, and never deceive the people;

● be kind and gentle, and possess a genial temperament;

● lead a simple life and be austere in habits, and not indulge in luxury;

● avoid hatred and ill-will, and not bear grudges against anyone;

● preach non-violence, ie not hurt anyone and promote peace, actively avoiding war;

● endure hardship and insults with equanimity; and

● not oppose the will of the people and act in harmony with the people.

It’s a list that’s still relevant and should be issued to anyone standing as an MP.

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