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1001 deeds, sayings, curiosities and anecdotes of the ancient world

The great nothing can without the small: Think global, Act local

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Pausanias is a Greek author of second century AD, probably from Lydia in Asia Minor, who traveled in various parts of the ancient world and has left us a precious book , the first tour guide about we have news, his Description of Greece.

They drew attention, like to so many others, the walls of Tiryns, built with huge stones, which they considered works of the Cyclops (see http://en.antiquitatem.com/cyclopean-colossal-herculean-gigantic

He tells us, among in other places, in Description of Greece, II, 25.8

(Tyrinht) The wall, which is the only part of the ruins still remaining, is a work of the Cyclopes made of unwrought stones, each stone being so big that a pair of mules could not move the smallest from its place to the slightest degree. Long ago small stones were so inserted that each of them binds the large blocks firmly together.  (English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D., and H.A. Ormerod, M.A. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1918).

Interestingly this custom or this expression of "putting small stones between large stones" corresponds to a proverb from world of building, whereby the large stones  can not form a strong wall without the small stones. This proverb has become a sentence with general sense, useful for the social life of man, which perfectly expressed, for example, the great tragedian author Sophocles in his Ajax: the small stone needs the strength of the large, but hardly the big straightens without  small; ie, small men need of big men, but they must to be ensured with small.

Sophocles says in his tragedy Ajax v. 155 ff:

Point your shaft at a noble spirit,  and you could not miss; but if a man were to speak such things against me, he would win no belief. It is on the powerful that envy creeps. Yet the small without the great are a teetering tower of defence. [160] For the lowly stand most upright and prosperous when allied with the great, and the great when served by less.

But foolish men cannot learn good precepts in these matters beforehand. It is men of this sort that subject you to tumult, and [we lack the power to repel these charges without you, O King. (Sophocles. The Ajax of Sophocles. Edited with introduction and notes by Sir Richard Jebb. Sir Richard Jebb. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. 1893.)

Plato himself, in his dialogue Laws, is also served from the proverb in a debate over whether the gods care of everything as a whole or also of the particular details:

Plato, Laws, 902b et seq.
Athenian: That being so, it matters not whether a man says that these things are small or great in the eyes of the gods; for in neither case would it behove those who are our owners to be neglectful, seeing that they are most careful and most good. For let us notice this further fact—

Clinias: What is it?

Athenian: In regard to perception and power,—are not these two naturally opposed in respect of ease and difficulty?


How do you mean?
Athenian: It is more difficult to see and hear small things than great; but everyone finds it more easy to move, control and care for things small and few than their opposites.

Clinias: Much more.

Athenian: When a physician is charged with the curing of a whole body, if, while he is willing and able to care for the large parts, he neglects the small parts and members, will he ever find the whole in good condition?

Clinias: Certainly not.

Athenian: No more will pilots or generals or house-managers, nor yet statesmen or any other such persons, find that the many and great thrive apart from the few  and small; for even masons say that big stones are not well laid without little stones.

Clinias: They cannot be.

Athenian: Let us never suppose that God is inferior to mortal craftsmen who, the better they are, the more accurately and perfectly do they execute their proper tasks, small and great, by one single art,—or that God, who is most wise, and both willing and able to care,  cares not at all for the small things which are the easier to care for—like one who shirks the labor because he is idle and cowardly,—but only for the great.

Clinias: By no means let us accept such an opinion of the gods, Stranger: that would be to adopt a view that is neither pious nor true at all.

Athenian: And now, as I think, we have argued quite sufficiently with him who loves to censure the gods for neglect.

Clinias: Yes.

Athenian: And it was by forcing him by our arguments to acknowledge  that what he says is wrong. But still he needs also, as it seems to me, some words of counsel to act as a charm upon him

Clinias: What kind of words, my good sir?

Athenian: Let us persuade the young man by our discourse that all things are ordered systematically by Him who cares for the World—all with a view to the preservation and excellence of the Whole, whereof also each part, so far as it can, does and suffers what is proper to it. To each of these parts, down to the smallest fraction, rulers of their action and passion are appointed to bring about fulfillment even to the uttermost [903c] fraction; whereof thy portion also, O perverse man, is one, and tends therefore always in its striving towards the All, tiny though it be. But thou failest to perceive that all partial generation is for the sake of the Whole, in order that for the life of the World-all blissful existence may be secured,—it not being generated for thy sake, but thou for its sake. For every physician and every trained craftsman works always for the sake of a Whole, and strives after what is best in general, and he produces a part for the sake of a whole, and not a whole for the sake of a part; …
(Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 10 & 11 translated by R.G. Bury. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1967 & 1968.)

Extrapolating the concept we could express this very old idea in this one so modern, "Think Global, Local Act" which has emerged in the field of environment, but it is already used in any political and social context.

Even if we refer to political action, we could refer the content of the sentence to the contrast between macroeconomics or macropolitics and micro-economics or  micro economics. It is possible a macroeconomic action without considering the need of  microeconomic action? They are justified political measures of macroeconomics that are not reflected, or better, departing from the impact on real people ?. Perhaps the thought of ancient can help us to improve our reflection.


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