Shashi Tharoor

Shashi Tharoor

A weeklong electronic journal.
Aug. 12 1998 3:30 AM

Shashi Tharoor

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       The executive seminar is going well. It's been salutary, and in some ways exhilarating, for business executives to discover how much pleasure and instruction they can in fact receive from parsing Aristotle or dissecting the Declaration of Independence. We've all been doing it with brio, and probably surprising ourselves a little in the process. I even found five lines in John Locke's Second Treatise of Government that could be read as a prescient, if probably unintended, attack on the basic premises of colonialism, which gratified my liberal Indian heart no end.
       The initial sessions have focused on issues of rights, responsibilities, and liberty--including some fairly intense discussion of slavery, for which the ancient thinkers managed to find some tortuous rationalizations. Aristotle's views ("the lower sort are by nature slaves, and it is better for them as for all inferiors that they should be under the rule of a master") probably caused the most offense, but he had some pretty tough competition from himself on the subject of women ("the male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle, of necessity, extends to all mankind"). There's much more along those lines from the most influential thinker of ancient Greece, but one lesson I learned immediately was to beware of philosophers who use the phrase "by nature" (or, for that matter, "by necessity"). The most untenable arguments can be ascribed to the way things just are, "by nature"; and if a proposition follows "by necessity," you can be pretty sure the necessity is the philosopher's, not nature's.
       But then what can you expect from the man whose most successful pupil was that mass murderer Alexander the Great? You spend years teaching a kid philosophy and ethics and reason; then he goes out and sees one of the great conundrums of the age, the Gordian knot, which experts from all over the world have been trying for years to unravel; and all he can do is run his sword through it. Barbarous, but if that's all he took away from his Aristotelian education, I don't think we'd have welcomed young Alex to Aspen.
       I've had a couple of U.N. phone calls, including one from the secretary-general (currently traveling in Portugal), and a flurry of e-mails, but so far no clamorous summons to abandon my ivory tower and return to HQ forthwith. The tragic bombings in Africa have nothing directly to do with the United Nations, of course, but Iraq remains an ongoing worry. As the secretary-general told the security council, the Iraqis seem to have convinced themselves that nothing they do will get the sanctions lifted, so they see little incentive to comply with the U.N. disarmament demands. Our job is to ensure they cooperate with our work and comply with the security council resolutions; it's for the council, in turn, to recognize any progress that's made. Everybody agrees that in the end the world needs an Iraq that's effectively disarmed and poses no threat to its neighbors, but also an Iraq whose people are given their place in the community of nations, free of sanctions. As always in international affairs, identifying the goals is easy enough; it's getting from here to there that's difficult.
       Just the note on which to set off up the mountain to an outdoor cookout. Executive seminars aren't all work, after all. At the cookout, we'll be rehearsing for an all-but-impromptu production of Sophocles' Antigone, a vital part of our course. And why not? After all, the seminar couldn't be all work--and no play!

Shashi Tharoor is a prize-winning Indian writer of both fiction (The Great Indian Novel, Show Business) and nonfiction (most recently, India: From Midnight to the Millennium). He is also director of communications and special projects in the office of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.