February 23, 2013

Sympathy and the Legacy of Complacency

When the going is good, the corrupt, the corpulent, the anti-intellectual, and the gourmand get their day. If the going is good for a while, these guys get their feet well and truly under the table. It’s a mighty job to get a placeman to give up his place. If we live in an era devoid of political nous, in the midst of a dearth of brilliance and of the spluttering rhetoric of leaders who cannot lead, we are not the first:

In the courts of princes, in the drawing-rooms of the great, where success and preferment depend, not upon the esteem of intelligent and well-informed equals, but upon the fanciful and foolish favour of ignorant, presumptuous, and proud superiors; flattery and falsehood too often prevail over merit and abilities.

We have probably all slaved in environments of clientism and nepotism, where the face-fitting yes-men contort their mediocrities into pleasing shapes for the sake of scraps from the table. Now it is a pervasive Occidental malady. The cultivation of flattery endured for long enough that the cultivation of talent went begging for infrastructure. The man of vision thumps his fist on the table in frustration, but is swept along in a rushing torrent of ephemeral images, of passing fads, reality ‘stars’, and auto-tuned politics. He’s just another piece of noise.

In such societies the abilities to please, are more regarded than the abilities to serve. In quiet and peaceable times, when the storm is at a distance, the prince or great man, wishes only to be amused, and is even apt to fancy that he has scarce any occasion for the service of any body, or that those who amuse him are sufficiently able to serve him. The external graces, the frivolous accomplishments, of that impertinent and foolish thing called a man of fashion, are commonly more admired than the solid and masculine virtues of a warrior, a statesmen, a philosopher, or a legislator. All the great and awful virtues, all the virtues which can fit, either for the council, the senate, or the field, are, by the insolent and insignificant flatterers, who commonly figure the most in such corrupted societies, held in the utmost contempt and derision.

These are not peaceable times. Far from it. But when we long ago bet our solid virtues on a pyramid scheme we scarcely thought how we might retrieve them once the sun ceased to shine. The British notion of ‘service’ has been reduced to James Bond quips and glib citizenship tests demanding that ‘foreigners’ know how to glorify General Gordon. To get it back, we need to know that there is something to serve. Citizenship is about belonging, but also owning. It is about acknowledging a mutual set of responsibilities, from the State to the individual and vice versa. There isn’t a lot of that spirit about any more. The phrase ‘we’re all in this together’ has been appropriated for a political slogan, heightening our distrust, and making us all the more entrenched in our view that, actually, it’s every man for himself. If ever we needed leadership, it is now. But where to find him or her?

When the duke of Sully was called upon by Lewis the Thirteenth to give his advice in some great emergency, he observed the favourites and courtiers whispering to one another, and smiling at his unfashionable appearance. “Whenever your majesty’s father,” said the old warrior and statesmen, “did me the honour to consult me, he ordered the buffoons of the court to retire into the antechamber.”

It’s not exactly hopeless out there, but if we were to cast around for a latter-day duke of Sully we might have to wait a while to find him. Trouble these days is that the throne room’s been flogged for a porn set and we’ve been living in the antechamber for years. There’s a party going on and everyone’s been hammered for a decade. We are utterly self-absorbed, racing each other to the bottom of the sleaziest autobiography charts.

All the quoted passages here are from Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). Smith knew that the essential corollary of the selfish was the sympathetic. To share the joys, but also the sufferings of one’s fellow man was the basis of civilisation. It is in a man’s interests to sympathise with other men, to care for his needs, to feel his pain, for in solidarity he increases the likelihood that, in his own pain, he too will find the succour of others. The Golden Rule, with its archetypical architecture of altruism, depends first and foremost on self-knowledge of self-interest: Do as you would be done unto. In our clamouring for the top, or in our struggle to avoid the abyss, we trample the man underneath us. The more we trample, the more damage we do to ourselves.

It really were better that we pulled together. The leadership for which we yearn can be sourced in each other. No amount of charisma in a suit is going to do it for us. It’s time to turn a clenched fist into an open hand. Who will be first?


  1. There is something so upright and refreshing about reminders like this: to trade in our obsession with impression management for the headier delights of true virtue.

  2. That's the ticket Daren. Thanks for reading.


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