Saturday, 10 July 2021

To see one’s equation written out

It is uncomfortable but worth dwelling on what these things have in common - popular entertainment, package holidays, shopping centres and coronavirus lockdowns. They are clues to what we are collectively – easily manipulated.

The great weakness of democracy lies within us – it is our weakness. We have drifted into an expectation that democratic leaders should both understand and sympathise with us. That is clearly what we want collectively, but it makes little sense in terms of human capabilities. A series of quotes from George Santayana highlights the nature of the problem. I’ve used it before but it is worth revisiting.

It is a mark of the connoisseur to be able to read character and habit and to divine at a glance all a creature’s potentialities. This sort of penetration characterises the man with an eye for horse-flesh, the dog-fancier, and men and women of the world. It guides the born leader in the judgments he instinctively passes on his subordinates and enemies; it distinguishes every good judge of human affairs or of natural phenomena, who is quick to detect small but telling indications of events past or brewing. As the weather-prophet reads the heavens so the man of experience reads other men.

We expect incompatible characteristics from our leaders. We expect them to understand us but at the same time we expect sympathy rather than the cool analytical clarity required to foster that understanding. It is a naive expectation. Capable leaders have to be cool, analytical and unsympathetic towards those expecting to be led –

Nothing concerns him less than their consciousness; he can allow that to run itself off when he is sure of their temper and habits. A great master of affairs is usually unsympathetic. His observation is not in the least dramatic or dreamful, he does not yield himself to animal contagion or re-enact other people’s inward experience. He is too busy for that, and too intent on his own purposes. His observation, on the contrary, is straight calculation and inference, and it sometimes reaches truths about people’s character and destiny which they themselves are very far from divining.

We see the problem in an impossible middle class desire for capable leadership which is also sympathetic. A desire catered for and shared by media outlets such as the Guardian and the BBC. A desire which constantly edges towards social and political shambles, only kept in check by? It appears to be kept in check something which knows us well.

Such apprehension is masterful and odious to weaklings, who think they know themselves because they indulge in copious soliloquy (which is the discourse of brutes and madmen), but who really know nothing of their own capacity, situation, or fate. If Rousseau, for instance, after writing those Confessions in which candour and ignorance of self are equally conspicuous, had heard some intelligent friend, like Hume, draw up in a few words an account of their author’s true and contemptible character, he would have been loud in protestations that no such ignoble characteristics existed in his eloquent consciousness; and they might not have existed there, because his consciousness was a histrionic thing, and as imperfect an expression of his own nature as of man’s.

Woke culture and virtue signalling are exactly that – histrionic things. Distractions.

When the mind is irrational no practical purpose is served by stopping to understand it, because such a mind is irrelevant to practice, and the principles that guide the man’s practice can be as well understood by eliminating his mind altogether. So a wise governor ignores his subjects’ religion or concerns himself only with its economic and temperamental aspects; if the real forces that control life are understood, the symbols that represent those forces in the mind may be disregarded. But such a government, like that of the British in India, is more practical than sympathetic. While wise men may endure it for the sake of their material interests, they will never love it for itself. There is nothing sweeter than to be sympathised with, while nothing requires a rarer intellectual heroism than willingness to see one’s equation written out.

George Santayana - The Life of Reason (1905 - 1906)

And so we may conclude what we so often do conclude in various ways. Leaders we see on the political stage are more actors than leaders - their job is to project the sympathy from within an official demeanour. The real leaders write their lines, assuage their doubts, mould their fears and stroke their vanity. They do the same to us, but they do it via the Boris Johnsons of this world.


Sam Vega said...

I'm not sure if there is a distinction between the leaders and the sympathisers. We are in an age where appearing sympathetic is a political commodity, and people rise or fall according to whether they can do so. A shadowy elite of powerful leaders behind Boris is scary, but not as scary as there being nobody behind him. We wanted a clever generalist who looked as though he understands us, and that, unfortunately, is all we have got.

A K Haart said...

Sam - maybe a clever generalist is all we ever vote for. Boris appears to be one, but sometimes he doesn't - he comes across as having made too little effort even for a generalist. It is possible that there is nobody behind him, merely a fog of superficial social influences.