Friday, December 25, 2009

Ancient Wisdom in Tomorrow's Newspaper

The history of the world does indeed repeat itself over and over again - the same principles and questions come into play, but always in different situations, places, and times - involving different people. This "same only different" quality of history jumps out of the daily news about our world to the reader who is familiar with past civilizations. A recent article by David Brooks, writing in the New York Times, points out four fictions in the minds of voters about their elected leaders. Brooks probably doesn't realize that he has simply re-discovered political notions which would have been familiar to Zeno of Citium and Thales, to Cicero and Edmund Burke:

The first fiction was the government is a contest between truth and error. In reality, government is usually a contest between competing, unequal

schemes and plans. The concept is here that government isn't a chance to implement some ideal plan in the real world; rather government is about practical compromises. Which leads to realize that

The second fiction was that to support a policy is to make it happen. In fact, in government power is exercised through other people. It is only by coaxing, prodding, and compromise that presidents actually get anything done.

Moses and Abraham couldn't abolish the barbaric practice of human sacrifice in a single, revolutionary stroke of the pen. It took generations and decades to persuade, first their own culture, and then other civilizations, to see human life as extremely valuable. Likewise, men like William Wilberforce, Chancellor Metternich, and Abraham Lincoln worked through complex webs of politics to abolish slavery. We can't make things happen in straightforward sweeping revolution, because

The third fiction was that we can begin the world anew. In fact, all problems and policies have already been worked by a thousand hands and the clay is mostly dry. Presidents are compelled to work with the material they have before them.

We don't get a blank slate or a clean table in civil government. We are simply the latest tweak or revision on many layers of precedent and decision. We can make meaningful change, but it must be envisioned within the context of the existing culture. Any attempt to wipe the slate clean and start over with a new world leads only to chaos and bloodshed, as in the French Revolution, and simply opens the door to exploitation and dictatorship, as in the case of Napoleon.

The fourth fiction was that leaders know the path ahead. In fact, they have general goals, but the way ahead is pathless and everything is shrouded by uncertainty.

Even the most brilliant leader doesn't know the future. Humans make plans, but plans are ever subject to revision in the light of new developments or unexpected circumstances. The quality we hope to see in our leaders is not some prophetic ability to see the future, but the skill and wisdom to deal with whichever unknown and unforeseeable events and conditions are in the future. Such wisdom is not an idealistic projection, but rather the practical ability to deal with what actually is. As distasteful as it is, the truth remains that compromise is an essential ingredient in successful governing.