#2 A Poet and an Engineer walked into a bar...

Exploring the meaning of an ancient tale of two brothers

Praxiteles and Polemarchus were brothers in ancient Greece. Praxiteles was a poet. Polemarchus was an engineer. Praxiteles wrote a poem once about a gold mine, which Polemarchus’ business had built. In that poem, he described the mine as “a wound” inflicted on mother earth’s breast by its ungrateful children. Praxiteles had previously also written a poem likening his girlfriend’s gold necklace to a setting sun.

Polemarchus questioned the symmetry of Praxiteles’ poetry. How can Praxiteles love a gold necklace if he despised the natural destruction caused by a gold mine?

Praxiteles recognized his fallacy, and the two brothers started a school for Poets and Engineers. Where, Engineers studied building technology of value with ethics. And Poets learned to think and write - since their ideas could be consequential to building human values.

Coming back into modernity, our belief in future stems from our belief in cultural and technological progress, which can afford us better control of our environments. And we tend rely on markets and technology to solve the most complex problems of today.

Markets put a price on solutions, and let the market mechanism discover the value. But price of everything is becoming value of everything. At the same time, things of human value, that we don’t know how to price, are getting destroyed. Dignity of a gig worker, misplaced focus on public health, rapid depletion of natural resources, polarization of public opinion - A few examples, all of which are issues because we tend to run our societies as markets now.

In regard to this modern challenge, I find the story of Praxiteles and Polemarchus instructive. For me, it underlines a pertinent question - how can you build something of ‘market value’ while being mindful of ‘human values’?

Because, if this question was important in Greece of antiquity, the imperative is magnified a million times over in modernity. And while the answers tend to fixate on public policy, there are billions of creative people engaged in building this future.

Therein resides the core challenge. The ones with the vision for the better future, the poets, don’t build enough anymore. The ones building, the engineers, don’t spend enough time discovering their inner poets.

And in our increasingly specialized world, poets and engineers don’t hang out enough, in the proverbial bars.

To me, it seems that the joke is on all of us.