Cleaning the Augean Stables*
Jerry Brown holds a 1961 Bachelor of Arts degree in Classics from the University of California at Berkeley. He’s the only California governor of the last 112 years whose collegiate focus was the study of languages, literature and philosophy from cultures that rose and fell a millennium or two ago.
His speeches and statements are peppered with references to ancient Greece and Rome with a smattering of Latin quotes, usually correctly declaimed, thrown in for sport.
It’s clear that for better or worse, Brown therefore looks at politics much differently than those lacking his unique background.
Sadly, none of the numerous modern metaphors, similes, and comparisons routinely applied to politicians and the political process harken back to the Golden Age of Pericles and Cicero.
The closest link with antiquity is the claim politics is the world’s second oldest profession.
President Ronald Reagan got lots of mileage from his well-known quip about the “close resemblance” politics has to the world’s oldest profession.
Politicians are routinely:
Crooks. Cads. Scallywags. Know-Nothings. Boodlers. Mudslingers. Hacks. Carpetbaggers. Charlatans. Grand-standers. Parasites.
Oft repeated is the origin of the word “politics” – poly meaning “many” and tics, “blood-sucking parasites.”
Politics is a zoo, a jungle, a sausage factory, a three-ring circus, a psychiatric ward, a cesspool. It’s also numerous undesirable physical locales: Wasteland. Battleground. Pit. Quagmire. Quicksand.
But none of those descriptions are truly grounded in the classical tradition embraced by the current occupant of the Capitol’s corner office.
So, governor, this one’s for you. An image culled from the heart of Greco-Roman mythology that pretty much says it all:
Cleaning these stables was the fifth of the 12 labors of Hercules.
The stables belonged to King Augeas of Elis, a province in southern Greece. They housed over 1,000 cows, bulls, sheep, horses and goats.
Not a single stall or pen had been mucked out in 30 years.
History does not record the foulness of the smell but it must have been downright herculean.
The job of spic-and-spanning the stables was supposed to be both humiliating for Hercules and impossible since the king’s livestock were “divinely healthy,” a byproduct of which was apparently copious amounts of dung.
Augeas, bitten by the hubris bug, tells Hercules he can have one-tenth of the cattle if the task can be completed in a single day. Hercules takes the bet.
Using brain and brawn, Hercules diverts two of the rivers flowing nearby, consolidates them into one surging channel and uses the torrent to sluice out the stables. As a bonus, the acreage surrounding the stables is very righteously fertilized.
In 1894’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, cleansing the Augean stables is defined as clearing “away an accumulated mass of corruption, moral, religious, physical, or legal; to reform wrongs almost past the power of man to tackle.”
If a subscriber to the notion that politicians are both full-of-it and terminally venal then Augean stables is pert near the perfect metaphor for the state Capitol.
Except for one teensy detail:
Jerry Brown ain’t no Hercules.
Brown’s central campaign pitch was, in paraphrase, that, while a bit grizzled, his decades of political experience – including eight previous years in the corner office – gave him the smarts and the shrewdness to make the stables sparkle.
But the same nasty stench as 18 months ago still seems to be wafting from the center of Capitol Park.
*(A similar version recently appeared in the Sacramento News & Review.)
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