The Romans never became the philosophical equals of the Greeks, but, with their instinct for the practical and love of linguistic economy, they gave us a nourishing harvest of Latin aphorisms. This is one of them: ‘the corruption of the best is the worst’. The Greeks and the Germans love to expostulate for pages on what sayings like that mean, and when they do so, we call it philosophy. But the wisest men of old, like Heraclitus, were probably closer to the source of it all when they managed to pack reams of sapience into a handful of words. The wisdom is transparent, and even the illiterate can listen and fathom its depths. So let’s take a dive into this one.
Step on an ant and you create an inoffensive formic corpse; kill a human, and you have produced the most repellent cadaver known to our nostrils. “For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds / lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.” (Shakespeare, sonnet XCIV) Our bodies are the most complex compounds of matter and the noblest physical objects we know of (especially our brains). And ants, for all their segmented elegance, are by comparison rather simple. This is why, by the way (for all you viewers of ‘Spotlight’), that the world is right in being especially outraged by the spectacle of Catholic priests abusing the young. It is because they aspire to be the best that when they fall, the plummet is abysmal. (Nonetheless, the extensive sexual abuse of the young among those who are not Catholic priests or brothers will eventually hit the headlines as well; sadly, the problem is endemic to our sexually ‘liberated’ society, and in no way peculiar to the clergy of any church.) But back to the very idea of corruption.
You can’t abuse trash. You can’t torture filth. The very nature of those acts is reserved for victims possessed of intrinsic value. The higher the value and the closer something is to perfection, the more wicked will be its perversion. And here comes the example that occasioned these reflections. The corruption scandal in Brazil does not concern me nearly as much as the one in the USA. I am citizen of both countries, so I have a special right to express my amateur impressions. Watching Brazilian politicians debating and quarreling these past weeks reminds me more of a bunch of rowdy boys yelling and spitting at each other than a group of adults discussing policy. The country’s democracy is still so very young and its instincts still jejune. They seem at times to be ‘playing’ democracy, as children play house.
At the risk of offending my Brazilian readers, the corruption here, though more manifest and melodramatic, is lower-grade; it is not yet of the very best. The United States I grew up in has had its periods of greatness, of enormous productivity, generosity and promise. But then, it had over two centuries of rehearsing what we today call ‘democracy’ (a concept afflicted with ambiguity due to its customary confusion with ‘republic’…but let’s leave that for another time). Although it has risen to great heights, it has recently plunged to depths paradoxically known only to the fallen best. The corruption there is more subtle, more accomplished, more exquisitely camouflaged (and even more perfidiously financed). Its art is understated, but all the more sinister for that very reason. North American corruption is like professional ballet, and seems effortless; Brazilian corruption is like sweaty, adolescent break-dancing.
So Brazilians can be oddly comforted by the fact that, despite appearances, things are not as bad as they can get, since the country has not yet been as good as it can get. Only when Brazil has hopefully one day become a great success of a country can it emulate the Americans, and finally try its hand at more Mephistophelian depravity.