Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Quinquiremes and Coasters, Accountants and Officials, Riches and Horrors

There’s something haunting about John Masefield’s poem Cargoes.

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amethysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

A galley, like the quinquireme: elegant, graceful
Just don't think about the slaves who drove the oars
The contrast between the grubby coaster and the graceful quinquireme and galleon is particularly keen, because the coaster was involved in a trade worth many hundreds, or thousands, of times more than either of the other two. And that trade even brought comfort into the homes of modest people, for whom a cheap tin tray would have been a great deal more useful, and affordable, than amethysts or ivory (God knows what they’d have done with apes or peacocks.) 

Spanish Galleon
Stately, majestic, and temptingly full of treasure
But there’s something else in the poem: its movement. 

The quinquireme is carrying sweet-smelling woods, wine, ivory. Precious things.

The galleon is carrying goods of colossal worth. Treasure.

And the coaster is carrying goods that earn a lot. Commodities.

Dirty British Coaster
A romance of its own despite its grubbiness
In 1494, something rather crucial happened in the Italian city of Florence. Luca Pacioli wrote a manual for double-entry bookkeeping. The system had been around a while, but his book is still regarded by many as the true starting point of modern accounting. 

What’s special about double entry?

It reduces commerce, one of the main areas of human endeavour, to nothing more than numbers. Indeed, and this is the special genius of double entry, it reduces it to a single number: zero. If the books have been correctly kept (or alternatively, skilfully cooked), all the sums come to zero: all the credits cancel all the debits, leaving nothing.

In other words, double-entry pierces the magic of commerce – apes and ivory – or even its mysterious riches – topazes and amethysts – and makes it a simple matter of balancing income against expenditure – cheap tin trays.

This evolution took place in parallel with another summed up by the history of the state of Prussia. It has been described as a “state of raw reason”. Why?

Because it had none of the things that your basic patriot seems to feel are crucial for building a nation: no single language, though German dominated; no single religion, with Lutherans and Calvinists alongside Catholics and a good sprinkling of Jews; not even territorial integrity, with bits of land added in scattered, separated places, depending on who the ruler married or inherited from.

What could hold such an artificial nation together?

The two things in which Prussia had mastery: a powerful army and a huge, underpaid, utterly incorruptible and highly effective civil service. They, through pure reason, bound the unseen sinews and bones of the state together and turned it into one of the most powerful in Europe.

Eventually it built, and took the leading role in, the Empire of Germany. And just to underline the weirdness of that event, the Empire wasn’t proclaimed in Germany, as anyone would expect, but in France – in humiliated, defeated France. Not just anywhere in France, either: it was in the Hall of Mirrors at the former Royal Palace at Versailles.

William I of Prussia proclaimed Emperor of Germany at Versailles
With the help of the Prussian Army and the government of Bismarck
A competent and painfully honest civil service has to be a huge advantage for a nation. But it has its downside too. It’s impersonal. It’s cold. It’s passionless. 

It also has no moral judgement. Set it to do a job, and it does it without asking what the job is for. It turns out, ultimately, men like Adolf Eichmann. During World War 2, he was the SS functionary who was responsible for organising the trains to take Jews to the extermination camps.

Adolf Eichmann,the thorough civil servant
At his trial in Israel; inset, in his SS uniform
He did the job with complete dedication. And it wasn’t easy: organising train transport in wartime for up to 12 million people? No simple matter.

What he didn’t do, and this came out at his trial in Tel Aviv, was think about what he was doing. He didn’t ask himself “is it right to send all these people to their deaths?” He did the job, in an entirely dispassionate and efficient way, without wondering about the consequences.

Which is rather like double-entry book-keeping. Brilliant. Simple. Effective.


We have built machines that have turned magic into mechanics, and Masefield’s poem charts that progress. We’ve reaped the benefits. But we’ve also suffered the devastation.

Fascinating ideas, aren’t they? I wish I’d had them. I’ve just embroidered on some thoughts of Max Weber’s, built on with characteristic genius by Hannah Arendt.

See? I
’ve stood on the shoulders of giants, like Newton, proving that even ordinary people can do it and not just extraordinary men like him. And it still helps you see a lot further.


Faith A. Colburn said...

Still, I knew a lot of civil servants who thought very critically about what they did. What I fear is this trend in education to train to the job and not to teach. That seems a good way to turn out a whole generation of sycophants.

Faith A. Colburn said...

Just to be clear, I'm not blaming the teachers here, but the whole legal structure the last administration called "no child left behind" that left no room for teaching much beyond rote memorization.

David Beeson said...

I think there are a great many people who are taking a much more critical attitude towards what they're doing, in particular its ethical consequences. And actually I think that reflects, among other things, an emphasis on such considerations in teaching. That was perhaps a reaction to what we saw happen in Germany when a civil service decided to do the job in hand without a thought as to its consequences.

Like you, I'm concerned that we don't concern ourselves enough with such matters, and don't demand strongly enough that we keep teaching and aspiring sufficiently to such standards.