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Ancient and modern

No, Richard Branson, our greatest achievements don’t come from our greatest pain

The ancients would have found the idea absurd. And they proved it wrong

8 November 2014

9:00 AM

8 November 2014

9:00 AM

Explaining the death of a pilot testing a Virgin Galactic rocket-ship, Sir Richard Branson intoned: ‘I truly believe that humanity’s greatest achievements come out of the greatest pain.’ The ancients would have been appalled, both at the crass ignorance of the sentiment and its implication.

It is hard to see how papyrus, made out of marsh plants in Egypt since about 3,000 BC, resulted from ‘the greatest pain’. Yet, in combination with the presumably pain-free invention of the Greek alphabet, from which the Roman and our alphabet derive, this material was to drive literacy and a knowledge revolution across the Mediterranean. The technology took another dramatic leap forward when the codex, or book, was invented by the Romans in the 1st century BC, replacing the clumsy and inefficient scroll. One wonders how many lost their lives doing that.


To turn to the work of the mind, not many died when Euclid’s axiomatic method laid the secure foundation for later mathematics or Archimedes did work ranked with that of Newton, Gauss and Euler. Few fatalities were incurred when Aristotle invented biology and the rules of logic, Homer invented epic and Herodotus history. When, without a single casualty, the Roman poet Lucretius made Epicurus’ atomist theory of life the subject of his great poem On the Nature of the Universe, it would revolutionise our understanding of the world 1,700 years later. And all that from just the ancient world.

Further, Branson’s assertion that sending millionaires on holidays into suborbital space will be one of ‘humanity’s greatest achievements’ is grotesque enough; but the implication that ‘the greatest pain’ — i.e. the death of members of his workforce — is a price well worth paying in the cause of his saint-like devotion to the betterment of mankind suggests he is close to losing all sense of proportion. A Greek sentiment, surviving in Latin, might sum up his situation: quem Jupiter vult perdere, dementat prius — ‘whom Jupiter wishes to destroy, he first drives mad’.


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