Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for August, 2012

Who built that? ctd.

The Aeschylean Romney

I commented recently on the Republican obsession with the autogenesis of business founders. It is both insulting and un-American, they say, to suggest that the founder of a business did not actually build that business entirely by himself. And just recently it occurred to me that there is a significant analogy between this belief and the ancient theory of paternity that held sway in Europe for many centuries.

In Aeschylus’s Furies (last part of the Oresteia), Orestes stands accused of murdering his mother, something that he factually did, in revenge for her murdering his father (her husband). He defends himself by arguing that he has shed no “kindred blood”, that only his father is related by blood. The Furies turn to Apollo, outraged. He agrees with Orestes:

Not the true parent is the woman’s womb
That bears the child; she doth but nurse the seed
New-sown: the male is parent; she for him,
As stranger for a stranger, hoards the germ
Of life;

As in the Republican model you have a superficial, directly observable truth (women build babies; workers build buildings and enterprises) — if it’s a company that makes automobiles, every piece was connected to every other piece in every automobile by a worker, not by a “founder”, that’s just something you can see with your eyes — confronted by a determination to submerge this tangible truth in a theoretical framework that makes the father or the executive not just a “half-worker” (to quote Posthumus Leonatus in Cymbelline), but the only worker. In Apollo’s framing, the female is a passive vessel, flowerpot in which the male plants his seed. And in the Republican economy, the worker is simply a raw material, shaped by the vision of a job-creator.

The Aeschylean vision was formalised in the “one-seed theory” of Aristotle, and dominated medical thinking in Europe through the Middle Ages. This opens up a whole new realm of philosophical inquiry, updating classical theological and philosophical conundra for modern business. Do entrepreneurs have navels? Could Bill Gates write a cheque so large that a computer running Microsoft Windows can’t process it? If a stock market collapses in off-hours trading, does it make a crash? How many angels can dance on the margin of a call option?

On a side-note, I was impressed in 2008 with Obama’s application of Bob the Builder’s anthem:

Bob the Builder
Can we fix it?
Bob the Builder
Yes we can!

Perhaps the Republicans are subtly responding in kind: Maybe Bob the Builder can fix it, but only Mitt the MBA can build something new.

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