Thoughtlets. XVI.

Some find Tacitus’ Annals tedious. Some of it is. But his work keeps me riveted.

I’m not so interested in history, per se. Rather I’m interested in identifying patterns of human behaviour, events that repeat over millennia, and asking why they repeat themselves. But then, so was Tacitus,

“Perhaps there is a sort of cycle in all things, with changes of morality coming around again like seasonal changes.”

Tacitus. The Annals: The Reigns of Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero. Oxford World’s Classics. Translated by J.C. Yardley. Introduction and notes by Anthony A. Barrett. Oxford University Press Inc.: New York. 2008. Book 3, chapter 55, p. 124

Thinkers like Tacitus sought to identify not only which patterns either contribute to or threaten human survival and flourishing, and which don’t, but also which can be altered, and which can’t. This search for prediction and control continues with its modern counterparts, most notably in the hard sciences, but also in our social and political interactions. Hence the search for prediction and control is itself a repeating pattern of human behaviour, one without which humans would have been selected out so long ago there’d be no Darwin to tell us why we didn’t make the cut.

Here’s an example from the Annals that concludes with a pattern you’ll find familiar.

Germanicus, a popular general-cum-imperial deputy and the adopted son of the emperor Tiberius, fell ill and died. Before his death, Germanicus accused Piso, a hot-headed statesman, sometimes family friend, and newly appointed governor of Syria, of poisoning him.

Germanicus’ accusation was not laid to rest when his body was reduced to ash, but rather became increasingly animated by superstition and rumour. Amid political upheaval such as a civil war in Syria, complicated rivalries and allegiances, and myriad conspiracy theories, public outcry demanded Piso be brought to trial,

Cries could be heard coming from the public before the Curia: they would not refrain from violence if the man avoided sentencing by the Senate, they said. They had also dragged statues of Piso onto the Germonium Steps* and started hacking them to pieces — but these were rescued and put back on the emperor’s orders.

The Annals, Book 3, Chapters 14-17, p. 102

The toppling and vandalism of statues occurring in North America today might come to mind here.

Tiberius ordered Piso brought to trial before the Senate. The night before he was to present his defence, he slit his own throat. (Some say he was murdered.) The trial continued posthumously. Piso was found guilty of insubordination, corrupting the soldiers, and instigating a civil war. But there was insufficient evidence to convict him for the murder of Germanicus.

In the same trial, the Senate set about to discover the guilt or innocence of Piso’s two sons, Gnaeus and Marcos, for their roles in the Syrian civil war. And whether Piso’s wife, Placina, was an accomplice to the murder of Germanicus. Each were treated lightly. Gnaeus was stripped of property and ordered to change his first name, Marcos was demoted, and Placina was exonerated.

And here Tacitus brings his account of the trial of Piso to a close,

That spelled the end of the putative measures for Germanicus’ death, but the affair remained a subject of conflicting rumours not only amongst men of that epoch but in the years that succeeded them as well. So true is it that the greatest events are fraught with ambiguity: some regard as certain any hearsay at all, while others turn the truth inside out; and both versions balloon in succeeding generations.

The Annals, Book 3, Chapters 17-21, page 105

Substitute for the death of Germanicus that of Rasputin, Tsar Nicholas II and his family, JFK, Jimmy Hoffa, Princess Diana.

I’m not interested in psychological explanations for the behavioural patterns, since any such account can only be circular. Circular reasoning is a kind of informal fallacy in which one assumes to be true that which she is trying to prove (and NOT “raises the question”, as is so maddening in journalism).

One way to avoid circularity is to ask whether this correlation of two events comes apart, i.e. whether they occur independently from each other. Or even whether they constitute one pattern.

If these patterns occur independently from each other, then how likely are they nonetheless to be found occurring simultaneously and under which conditions? Or, do they only coincidentally occur together? Surely some great events pass with little more notice than a Sunday headline, while the behavioural patterns Tacitus describes are ubiquitous. A royal divorce might pass scarcely noticed or becomes the event of the century. What’s more, a definition of a great event is wanting, as is an indexical by which is meant a great event to whom?

A further question accounts for why these patterns have persisted, why have they not been axed by natural selection? What function might they serve? I can’t say.

Of course it’s possible that I can’t say because I’ve misidentified the patterns. Perhaps the recurring pattern on my example is “ambiguity”? If so, I might suggest that ambiguity is a functional operator for memic selection. But this is an hypothesis I can’t be testing in the space of a Thoughtlet.



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