Mayor of Newark, New Jersey and Democrat rising star when not challenging Obama, Cory Booker fell for the dreaded trap of the internet - the convenient but fabricated quote.
The challenge came after Mayor Booker quoted the Greek historian Plutarch on Twitter.com: “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.”
Mayor Booker then explained how public investment in education and nutrition would save money on police and prisons.
Having studied the classics, the quote struck me as quite off, and sure enough Plutarch never wrote it.
The quote doesn't appear in any of his works, and the closest is a passage describing the appointment of Solon by the Athenians in The Life of Solon
The Athenians, now the Cylonian sedition was over and the polluted gone into banishment fell into their old quarrels about the government, there being as many different parties as there were diversities in the country. The Hill quarter favoured democracy, the Plain, oligarchy, and those that lived by the Seaside stood for a mixed sort of government, and so hindered either of the other parties from prevailing. And the disparity of fortune between the rich and the poor, at that time, also reached its height; so that the city seemed to be in a truly dangerous condition, and no other means for freeing it from disturbances and settling it to be possible but a despotic power. All the people were indebted to the rich; and either they tilled their land for their creditors, paying them a sixth part of the increase, and were, therefore, called Hectemorii and Thetes, or else they engaged their body for the debt, and might be seized, and either sent into slavery at home, or sold to strangers; some (for no law forbade it) were forced to sell their children, or fly their country to avoid the cruelty of their creditors; but the most part and the bravest of them began to combine together and encourage one another to stand to it, to choose a leader, to liberate the condemned debtors, divide the land, and change the government.
Then the wisest of the Athenians, perceiving Solon was of all men the only one not implicated in the troubles, that he had not joined in the exactions of the rich and was not involved in the necessities of the poor, pressed him to succour the commonwealth and compose the differences. Though Phanias the Lesbian affirms, that Solon, to save his country' put a trick upon both parties, and privately promised the poor a division of the lands, and the rich security for their debts. Solon, however, himself says, that it was reluctantly at first that he engaged in state affairs, being afraid of the pride of one party and the greediness of the other; he was chosen archon, however, after Philombrotus, and empowered to be an arbitrator and lawgiver; the rich consenting because he was wealthy, the poor because he was honest. There was a saying of his current before the election, that when things are even there never can be war, and this pleased both parties, the wealthy and the poor; the one conceiving him to mean, when all have their fair proportion; the others, when all are absolutely equal. Thus, there being great hopes on both sides, the chief men pressed Solon to take the government into his own hands, and, when he was once settled, manage the business freely and according to his pleasure; and many of the commons, perceiving it would be a difficult change to be effected by law and reason, were willing to have one wise and just man set over the affairs; and some say that Solon had this oracle from Apollo-
This is because your current policy preference always sounds better if you can support it with some ancient wisdom.
Indeed, as Abraham Lincoln (as channeled by Clayton Cramer) once said:
“The problem with Internet quotations is that many are not genuine.”
While the real text above has everything you need for a Battlestar Galactica episode: - Cylons, Lesbians, oracles and Apollo - it lacks any viable way to get to “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.”
The real Plutarch would hardly be in favor of Booker's side.
Plutarch, in this passage notes much of the discord was from the poor paying one sixth of their income to the creditors, while most now pay far more than one sixth in taxes.
Indeed, Plutarch's lives records the shift of the Athenians (and others in his other works) from democracy to tyranny, or Republic to dictatorship as the fickle mob is flattered and bought off by the demagogues. Not quite the message Booker would want to highlight considering he's a Democrat.
Yet another warning to be suspicious of un-sourced quotes on the Internet that support your position, especially when they sound both modern and convenient.