Word of the Day: Unctuous

Word of the Day

Today’s word of the day is unctuous. The adjective has three possible meanings: 1. characterized by excessive piousness or moralistic fervor, especially in an affected manner; excessively smooth, suave, or smug; 2. of the nature of or characteristic of an unguent or ointment; oily; greasy; 3. having an oily or soapy feel, as certain minerals (https://www.dictionary.com/browse/unctuous?s=t). It’s interesting that the order of the meanings is actually in reverse order from an historical perspective.

This is what www.etymonline.com says about the word unctuous: “late 14c., ‘oily, having a greasy or soapy feeling when touched,’ from Old French unctueus, from Medieval Latin unctuosus ‘greasy,’ from Latin unctus ‘act of anointing,’ from past participle stem of unguere ‘to anoint’ (see unguent). Figurative sense of ‘blandly ingratiating’ is first recorded 1742, perhaps in part with a literal sense, but in part a sarcastic usage from unction in the meaning ‘deep spiritual feeling’ (1690s), such as comes from having been anointed in the rite of unction.” You may have heard the phrase “extreme unction,” also referred to as “last rites,” the practice of anointing with oil someone who is sick to the point of death.

It seems that it is that last meaning, the sarcastic sense that refers to someone who pretends to be holier than everyone else, more moral than others, that has come to predominate in contemporary English.

I am not a great student of ancient history, but I recently learned about one character from Roman history whom I find quite intriguing. His name was Publius Rutilius Rufus, and he lived from 158 BCE to 78 BCE. As a young man, he studied philosophy under the Roman Stoic Panaetius. He began a military career, serving under Scipio Africanus in the Numantine War in 134 BCE. He later served under Q. Metellus Numidicus in the campaign against Jugurtha in Numidia (Jugurtha had jointly inherited the throne with his two brothers, one of whom he had assassinated and the other of whom he defeated in a civil war—the Romans didn’t like him very much). In 105, Rutilius was made consul, and during this time he made a name for himself by restoring discipline to the Roman army and implementing new drills.

In 94 BCE, Rutilius was sent to western Turkey by the governor Quintus Mucius Scaevola to reform the corrupt tax farming system that was in place there. Tax farming is a system, common throughout the ancient Middle East but also prevalent in Rome and even Great Britain, whereby private citizens acquire the right to collect taxes from landowners. They might be given this right by the reigning monarch or might purchase the right through some sort of auction. According to https://romanhistorybooks.typepad.com/, “The principle was considered very effective for tax revenue collection but suffered from a tendency of the tax-farmers to abuse the taxpayer for collection. Only when the system included checks and balances for the tax-farmer as well as the taxpayer did the system seem truly successful. The publicani of Rome were known as some of the most abusive tax-farmers.” Sadly for Rutilius, the publicani were very influential in Rome.

According to www.dailystoic.com in their interview with historian Mike Duncan, “’Incredulous that Rutilius was messing with their profits, the powerful tax farming companies back in Rome conspired to have Rutilius brought up on charges for corruption and extortion. The charges were ludicrous as Rutilius was a model of probity and would later be cited by Cicero as the perfect model of a Roman administrator. In the face of this farce, Rutilius refused to even offer a defense so as not to acknowledge its legitimacy.’ And just like that, Rutilius’ property was seized and he was exiled. He was offered one small dignity: the choice of the place of his exile. With the stone-hard determination of a man who knows he did nothing wrong, Rutilius chose the very city he had allegedly defrauded. There, Duncan added, ‘he lived among the people he had allegedly abused, but who actually loved him because he had stopped the abuse.’” 

The governor under whom Rutilius worked, Scaevola, escaped punishment because he was much better connected than Rutilius was. Years later, Rutilius was invited to return to Rome from his exile, but he refused.

The idea that political operatives would accuse an innocent man of doing exactly what the operatives are doing did not die with the publicani. Interestingly, we see it even today, when those in pursuit of power will accuse others of, say, cheating or abusing power or selling influence when it is they themselves who are engaging in those very activities. However, if one maintains one’s objectivity and uses one’s reason, one can often tell the publicani even today by how unctuous they are. But it sad that political corruption is allowed to flourish, fostered by media who refuse to look critically at the candidates they support, while the plebeians are defrauded by those who claim to want to help or support the people.

Let me close with a lengthy quotation from Will Durant: “A nation is born stoic, and dies epicurean. At its cradle (to repeat a thoughtful adage) religion stands, and philosophy accompanies it to the grave. In the beginning of all cultures a strong religious faith conceals and softens the nature of things, and gives men courage to bear pain and hardship patiently; at every step the gods are with them, and will not let them perish, until they do. Even then a firm faith will explain that it was the sins of the people that turned their gods to an avenging wrath; evil does not destroy faith, but strengthens it. If victory comes, if war is forgotten in security and peace, then wealth grows; the life of the body gives way, in the dominant classes, to the life of the senses and the mind; toil and suffering are replaced by pleasure and ease; science weakens faith even while thought and comfort weaken virility and fortitude. At last men begin to doubt the gods; they mourn the tragedy of knowledge, and seek refuge in every passing delight. Achilles is at the beginning, Epicurus at the end. After David comes Job, and after Job, Ecclesiastes” (https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/7474738-a-nation-is-born-stoic-and-dies-epicurean-at-its).

Today’s image is from the Daily Stoic page that introduces us to Publius Rutilius Rufus, with the notion that we should resist corruption and immorality, and thus not be like most other people, especially most other people who engage in what we laughingly call “public service.”

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