Sunday, October 01, 2006

On King Darius and the Art of the Boast

King Darius of Persia had the following text inscribed on his tomb:
This indeed my capability: that my body is strong. As a fighter of battles I am a good fighter of battles. When ever with my judgment in a place I determine whether I behold or do not behold an enemy, both with understanding and with judgment, then I think prior to panic, when I see an enemy as when I do not see one.

I am skilled both in hands and in feet. As a horseman, I am a good horseman. As a bowman, I am a good bowman, both on foot and on horseback. As a spearman, I am a good spearman, both on foot and on horseback.

These skills that Ahuramazda set down upon me, and which I am strong enough to bear, by the will of Ahuramazda, what was done by me, with these skills I did, which Ahuramazda set down upon me.

O man, vigorously make you known of what sort I am, and of what sort my skillfulnesses, and of what sort my superiority. Let not that seem false to you, which has been heard by your ears. Listen to what is said to you.

O man, let that not be made to seem false to you, which has been done by me. That do you behold, which has been inscribed. Let not the laws be disobeyed by you. Let not anyone be untrained in obedience. [The last line is unintelligible]" (Achaemenid Royal Inscriptions: DNb)
And such boasts have a long history in human (particularly male) behavior in which one attempts to intimidate through words either one's friends or one's enemies. I am thinking, in particular, of the great boast that Twain recorded in Life on the Mississippi where the braggart goes on and on about how good he is and, particularly, what a good boaster he is. This brag, of course, is highly relevant to modern-day rap in that many times the rapper goes on and on about what skills he or she has at rapping.

Now aside from the rhetorical aspects of the brag(boast) to indimidate others, I am also interested in when such bragging is condoned and not condoned. Ultimately everyone expects a basketball or football player to boast about his skills both on the court or field as a sort of rhetorical intimidation or distraction tactic. If that player, however, boasts out of the playing context they are considered "big headed" or so completely self-centered that they become the brunt of jokes (witness Karl Malone in parody on Comedy Central for example.) Out of their playing context, athletes are expected to be humble and self-effacing and great champions of team effort. (Now ultimately this can be a racial issue in that often times white players are seen as humble, but athletes of color are seen as self-centered and uppity. I will not, however, be engaging in a discussion of the racist aspects of humility today. I think, nevertheless it is important to considered social values and how they play out between the races.) Larry Bird and Michael Jordan are good examples of this pairing: both were stars on the court and didn't seem to lack attitude about their work while on the court. Nevertheless, when they came off the court they adopted the humble hero motif and declaimed team effort and rarely boasted about their copious skills on the court.

Similarly, one is expected to brag(boast) on a vitae but at the same time showing a sure amount of defference in a job interview. These indicate, of course, an amount of social control on individuals to keep them from breaking out a socially prescribed role. Not all people, in other words, get to be king, and only the king can brag with impunity.

Ultimately this does seem to be the case today, but leaders are expected to be humble (to an extent.) I think, however, that not much really has changed. Darius, for example, is being humble in that he indicates that all of this is thanks to Ahuramazda, much like a modern-day political leader ascribes things to God and asks for God's blessings (acting like some sort of Pontifex Maximus of official republican pan-theism.) Nevertheless, Darius makes sure that you know it is his skill that has made him great (thanks to Ahuramazda). Skill proves Darius. In other words he can kick your ass from here to next week (if he has to). Why can he do this? He has the skills, man. Thanks Ahuramazda! (Praise Jesus! for our modern context.) Darius, like the Jesus-prasing athlete, singer, film-maker, actor, artists, politician whatever is favored by a god and has a right to brag about it. See it is a weird sort of humility that is being displayed in this bragging.

So bragging is really about being humble when you pair it up with a feint at a deity? Hmm. Humility is about social conformity? Hmm.


  1. Yes, this is interesting. I am fascinated how in humble Asian cultures this is taken to an even weirder extreme. Because we essentially have a boastful culture, to me it doesn't seem boastful to list our accomplishments and back that up with "I'm a team player." But in Japan, for example, it's rude to even list accomplishments, I think...There are probably more subtle rules of engagement than here. Here you are supposed to say, "I want this job" or "Please give me this job" after the interview (at least that's what they teach us in HS. I think to say "Give me the job" in Japan would virtually guarantee not getting it. But then, what do I know?

  2. Do you think the Japanese culture takes on a collective sort of boast? One could argue that Darius, for example, is boasting for his whole people since kings were the people. (The famous "I am England" speeches of Queen Elizabeth is a good example.) Does the Japanese Emperor, for example, get to boast about how fantastic Japanese culture is? (I think he does.) I seem to recall, as well, a sort of Japanese collective pride which the individual Japanese person can brag about. (And this seems to be true of many societies.)

  3. Yes, quite so. I agree. Arrogance is in full effect, it's just bad to SHOW it on an individual level.

  4. The concept of "God" certainly seems to excuse much bragging. You can say all kinds of things about miracles and good deeds in the Mormon context (and I assume other religious contexts) as long as you indicate God's guidance and support. And if done correctly this brag seems to represent the very best in Christ-like humility.