Friday, April 10, 2020

Power Lifting from the 19th Century

I've always liked to read.

The vast majority of my adult life I've lived without a television (much to the chagrin of my children, but they survived their neo-Luddite upbringing in fine shape). Reading, playing board games, duplicate bridge, celebration cooking, and listening to live sports—reference my previous blog, Silent Spring—comprise my pantheon of go-to recreational pastimes.

My reading time enjoyed a sharp appreciation when I retired as FIC administrator at the end of 2015. I now average better than a book a week. While I still buy them, I've been steadily working my way through the enormous backlog that I accumulated over decades—of books I always meant to read, but somehow never got around to. Well, now I'm getting around to it. Very satisfying.

I'm an eclectic reader, who constantly mixes up what I tackle. In addition to a healthy assortment of mystery potboilers (Jeffrey Deaver, Michael Connelly, Louise Penny, PD James, and John Le Carré are among my current favorites), I read about one-third nonfiction, and 10% classics. I also have a sweet tooth for science fiction (Neal Stephenson, Vernor Vinge, Dan Simmons) My selections are based on mood and weight. As someone who travels a good deal (one or two out-of-state trips monthly, excepting during pandemics) I need to be prudent about what will fit in my suitcase, and hardbacks rarely make the cut for away games.

Fielding of Dreams
Right now, hunkering at home, I'm reading Henry Fielding's 1849 classic, Tom Jones. The paperback edition I have is not quite as old as the book, but close. It was put out as a Vintage classic in 1950, which is only one year younger than me (who aspires to become a classic himself), and listed for $1.65. Those were the days. Unfortunately, the perfect binding of this tome as also vintage and is no longer perfect. The book is literally decomposing even as I consume the words. While I started out with an intact copy, my edition has now self-divided into three segments and a few loose pages. This will be its last reading. Nonetheless I'm persisting.

Tom Jones is not just a classic; it's an investment. In addition to an oddball style and syntax for the modern reader, Fielding constantly interlards his prose with asides to the reader, often about the interplay of author, reader, and critic, but also to indulge in observations about human nature in general. The book is a whopping 886 pages, broken down into 16 subbooks, all of which are further parsed into anywhere from seven to 15 chapters.

Imagine my surprise last night (reading is typically the last thing I do before turning out the light) as I was breezing along in this satirical romp about the human condition in mid-19th Century England when I encountered chapter XII of book XII (pages 579-588 if you're scoring at home), a lengthy gratuitous segment on the culture of gypsies, facilitated by our hero stumbling into a barn full of them celebrating a marriage around midnight, while Tom and his two traveling companions were traversing the English countryside—in the pitch dark, mind you—in search of the road to Coventry. (Yes, the story wanders a bit.)

Through the author's somewhat strained artifice, Tom engages in a philosophical discussion with the gypsy king (who is conveniently among the celebrants), and the highlight of the chapter (the book?) for me was the royal's observation about how difficult it is for people with great power to resist the temptation to abuse it (some lessons are timeless). This what Fielding has to say:

No limited form of government is capable of rising to the same degree of perfection, or of producing the same benefits to society, with [absolute monarchy]. Mankind have never been so happy as when the greatest part of the then known world was under the dominion of a single master; and this state of their felicity continued during the reigns of five successive princes.* This was the true era of the Golden Age, and the only Golden Age which ever had any existence, unless in the warm imaginations of the poets, from the expulsion from Eden down to this day.

In reality, I know of but one solid objection to absolute monarchy. The only defect in which excellent constitution seems to be, the difficulty of finding any man [sic] adequate to the office of an absolute monarch; for this indispensably requires three qualities very difficult, as it appears from history, to be found in princely natures: first, quantity of moderation in the prince, to be contented with all the power which is possible for him to have; secondly, enough wisdom to know his own happiness; and thirdly, goodness sufficient to support the happiness of others, when not only compatible with, but instrumental to his own.

Now if an absolute monarch, with all these great and rare qualifications, should be allowed capable of conferring the greatest good on society, it must be surely granted, on the contrary, that absolute power, vested in the hands of one who is deficient in them all, is likely to be attended with no less a degree of evil. [I cannot resist an aside here, much in the spirit of Fielding: does this remind you of any President you can think of?]

… As the examples of all ages show us that mankind in general desire power only to do harm, and, when they obtain it, use it for no other purpose, it is not consonant with even the least degree of prudence to hazard an alteration, where our hopes are poorly kept in countenance by only two or three exceptions out of a thousand instances to alarm our fears. In this case it will be much wiser to submit to a few inconveniences arising from the dispassionate deafness of laws, than to remedy them by applying to the passionate open ears of a tyrant.

* Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius, who were the Roman Emperors in sequence from 96 CE to 180 CE.

This topic interests me a great deal, as power and its healthy use are a central and ongoing challenge in cooperative groups. As a close observer of intentional communities the past 45 years, my sense is that it is embarrassingly rare for people who are accorded great power to use it without abusing it—by which I mean using their power for personal gain (generally involving money or sexual misconduct) or the marginalization of individuals or subgroups (people who don't share their philosophy or with whom they don't get along or otherwise disapprove).

If we substitute "charismatic leader" for "absolute monarchy" in the Fielding passage above we arrive at a fairly cogent observation about cooperative groups. Fielding makes the case, which I support, that there is nothing inherently wrong with governance based on submission to the will and wisdom of a charismatic leader. The challenge is finding one with the right qualities, and there is the very devil to pay when you get it wrong. Amen.

Thus, reliance on a charismatic leader is fraught with danger. While groups have, I believe, a right to self-determination when it comes to governance, they are often trying to navigate a difficult passage  between the Scylla of consensus and the Charybdis of a governing oligarchy (of which the charismatic leader is a particular example—an oligarchy comprised of a party of one).

In the case of Scylla the challenge is educating the entire membership to think and act in the best interest of the whole (warning: this is harder than it looks, both because not everyone comes to cooperative life with this habit and may not be interested in altering the ones they have, and because it is often confusing to distinguish between differences in views that are based on legitimate disagreements about what's good for the group, and what's only a personal preference).

In the case of Charybdis—where, presumably, the uneducated (per the prior paragraph) are excluded from the decision-making elite (be it a single individual or a ruling core group) there invariably arises an us-them tension between those with power and those without, that becomes a sea anchor that retards smooth sailing and complicates group cohesion.

The key distinction between Scylla and Charybdis is that with the latter there is an explicit, acknowledged difference between those with decision-making authority and those without—in effect, a two-class system. Before anyone mounts a high horse, I should note that we have many mainstream models for just such systems: family, employment, school, and church all come to mind—all of which proceed with varying degrees of success and dysfunction. In fact, it is the intended deconstruction of a two-class system that makes consensus so radical.

But let's go back to Fielding and his criteria for good leaders, which I translate as follows:

a) Persons who are content with the power they have, rather than coveting more. Fielding styles this moderation.

b) Persons who are able to find happiness in what they have, rather than basing it on the endless acquisition of more. That is, their ambition is in check, and they are able to enjoy the journey.

c) Persons who support the happiness of others, whether it's compatible with the leader's personal joy or not. They consistently think and act in service to the perceived good of the whole.

To be sure, this is a high bar. Even if a person succeeds in meeting this standard (praise the lord) it is all the more difficult to sustain it—especially when they are fed a constant diet of sycophantic pap ("we're so blessed to have you for our leader") accompanied by high trust and low scrutiny of their behavior.

Having said that, I have also had the pleasure of meeting and working with a handful of exemplary community leaders—ones who have either met the stringent standards that Fielding has proposed, or are close. If you reflect on the criteria, you can infer that humility—not to be confused with a lack of courage or a dearth of self confidence—is also in the mix. That is, they are open to receiving critical feedback and continue to engage in personal work. This generally results in this person being in a leadership role—rather than being the leader, an important distinction. It means the person can cycle off duty, and the group must develop a breadth of leadership capacity among its membership.

Typically they're happy for others to take a turn at the wheel. While they may have high standards and demand sound thinking of their groups, they are fine with others serving as alpha dog (like geese in formation, it's prudent to rotate who's flying point because it's exhausting eating wind and generally not humane to ask one person to sustain all the blows). So it doesn't have to be them in the lead, and they aren't particularly motivated by full-time in the limelight. The reward, simply, is doing good and being helpful.

One of the greatest tragedies I encounter in working with cooperative groups is witnessing good leaders being misunderstood and expected to suffer the abuse and mistrust of members who have not done sufficient personal work to distinguish their personal agenda from what's best for the group, and then project nefarious motivations and level accusations of power mongering on the leaders—because they can't believe that anyone can be that selfless. Even though the leaders generally understand what's happening, they cannot defend themselves without running the risk of being labeled defensive, and too often are left to twist in the wind because the group's other members lack of courage to object to the calumny. Believe me, it's awful to watch.

While I was excited to find this insight about power buried two-thirds of the way through Tom Jones, it's sobering to reflect that Fielding had this aspect about human nature pretty well mapped out 170 years ago. What does it say about the species that we're not much further advanced today?

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