Thursday, July 28, 2022

Something That Could Be Guarded Against

“Virtue is a necessary constituent of national strength: capacity, and a vigorous understanding, are no less necessary to sustain the fortune of states.  Both are improved by discipline, and by the exercises in which men are engaged.  We despise, or we pity the lot of mankind, while they lived under uncertain establishments, and were obliged to sustain in the same person, the character of the senator, the statesman, and the soldier.  Commercial nations discover, that any one of these characters is sufficient in one person; and that the ends of each, when disjoined, are more easily accomplished.  The first, however, were circumstances under which nations advanced and prospered; the second were those in which the spirit relaxed, and the nation went to decay.

“We may, with good reason, congratulate our species on their having escaped from a state of barbarous disorder and violence, into a state of domestic peace and regular policy; when they have sheathed the dagger, and disarmed the animosities of civil contention; when the weapons with which they contend are the reasonings of the wise, and the tongue of the eloquent.  But we cannot, mean time, help to regret, that they should ever proceed, in search of perfection, to place every branch of administration behind the counter, and come to employ, instead of the statesman and warrior, the mere clerk and accountant.  By carrying this system to its height, men are educated, who could copy for Caesar his military instructions, or even execute a part of his plans; but none who could act in all the different scenes for which the leader himself must be qualified, in the state and in the field, in times of order or of tumult, in times of division or of unanimity; none who could animate the council when deliberating on domestic affairs, or when alarmed by attacks from abroad.”

- Adam Ferguson, from An Essay on the History of Civil Society

Roughly, this concerns the threat of a danger when a society proceeds too far in differentiating people and their roles -- particularly roles relevant to citizenship and government, and to citizens participating in and running their own government and its parts -- reaching a point where few people are competent in more than one principal area of leadership, or even where those separate areas become subdivided in such a way that they depend for their operation on regulation, routine, and the communication and execution of instructions, and where it does not require (if it continues even to allow for the possibility of it) many of the people involved to have more than a superficial comprehension of what they are doing.  It becomes rare for a person to know the reasons that underlie any of it, to understand the part that it plays in the larger plan (or, possibly, even to be aware that it plays a part in a larger plan), or to have mastery of the larger subject.  In this condition, will we be able to find the people (if they exist) who not only know what is being done but understand it well enough to competently lead or assist in repairing, updating, enhancing, or in any other way altering the organizational machinery?  How will we prepare or identify them?  At what point will we even realize that we have a need for this?

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