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Can history’s proverbs help a public in need of guidance?

Larry Struck

Sometimes a pithy saying tells you everything you need to know. Instead of detailed analyses or extensive debate of an issue, a well-placed proverb can cut to the core. So it is with the Adages of Erasmus, a collection assembled by the Renaissance scholar that gathers the wisdom of ancient Greece and Rome. In its day, the early 1500s, the Adages was a best-seller and much better known than the work he is today most remembered for, "In Praise of Folly," also remarkably relevant.

War is sweet for those who have not tried it can be traced back over 2,500 years when warfare was mainly a brutal hand-to-hand business. By comparison, modern cyber-based war may seem clean and thrilling to spectators who don’t have flesh in the game. It was apparently as easy then as now for an inexperienced leader to unleash the dogs of war with a terrible order leading to distant human destruction. Erasmus comments, “By his will the world is to be thrown into an uproar with wars and slaughter, all things sacred and profane are to be turned upside down.”

The bad behavior of an unfit leader, and the example it sets, can leave us wondering whether this is some kind of Machiavellian design worked out by grown naughty boys. Or are we dealing with a different beast altogether whose dark nature is more frightening? Good question. Not mutually exclusive views, but our contemporary tendency to psychologize disorders and then prescribe therapy or meds contrasts with earlier ages that would agree with the saying, A crooked branch, never straight. This older fatalistic attitude holds that a twisted or warped character can’t be expected to bear good fruit, allowing that even a broken clock is right twice a day. Erasmus believes that “the evil prince … either knows nothing, or what he knows is how to bring about public disaster.” Such a leader would be clouded in mind and far removed from conventional notions of honesty or honor. Citizens should ask if clinical deviance spares him from the penalties for treasonous conduct in a nation of laws.

How would such an impetuous leader gain the support of his people? If not through forced submission to a tyrant, then more democratically by guile or public persuasion aided by the contortions of sympathetic media. A ruler’s subjects would be led by the nose to do or think as they’re told, even if believing it was their own free choice. The image comes from oxen, cattle or horses that are led by a ring through the nostril. A manipulative leader skilled in oratory or just plain fakery to get his way can be said to sell smoke. Our more modern smoke and mirrors also points to empty promises, illusions or flattery — whatever helps make the sale.

Consensus makes it easier to govern, but finding common ground with others who look too extreme or delusional is tricky. Dialogue is usually recommended as the key to communication and resolving differences. But suppose either party to the conversation can’t understand or just isn’t interested in working toward solutions. They may seem to be paying attention, nod and even make an occasional comment. Maybe they’re acting a part to show cooperation while in fact not caring at all about what’s said since their own agenda is already set in motion. Or they could just be clueless and out of their depth. An ass (listening) to the lyre captures some truth here: a donkey will twitch its ears as if appreciating music or understanding speech. Point being that donkeys are always twitching their ears so it doesn’t mean they understand a thing. Pearls before swine is a similar biblical example. A more recent variation comes from George Bernard Shaw: The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.  

It’s not surprising that so many dysfunctional traits would have dire implications for an organization or country led by toxic individuals. An old expression that vividly depicts the result, A fish rots from the head down, has become a favorite with management experts. While the description may not be biologically accurate — innards and heart may go first — it still rings true. The person(s) at the top of an organization will be responsible for deteriorating standards and performance throughout. It’s a situation that stinks.

Erasmus offers a few thoughts in a more constructive vein. “The first requisite [of good leadership] is to judge rightly about each matter, because opinions are like springs from which all the actions of life flow, and when they are contaminated everything must needs be mismanaged.” To do this, “the mind of the prince must be freed from all false ideas so that he can see what is truly good.” No doubt it’s an uphill battle for the rare individual who can follow this advice while fighting the everyday stormy sea of troubles, not to mention those slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

If a leader — whether of a state, project, or family — can withstand the daily onslaught of media overload, innovative disruption, and enemies’ dirty tricks, then there’s a chance for a fresh start. Well begun is half done. Sometimes just tackling an unappealing job is the hardest part, made worse if you have to play defense at the same time. However, if instead of making a good beginning a leader rushes off in the wrong direction then others are left with a needless mess to clean up later. As Kurt Vonnegut would add: And so it goes …

The advice and wisdom we take from proverbs cover every corner of life, from shameful depravity and comic weakness to heroic triumph. An entire society looking for guidance could do worse than heed: Between friends all is common. Although this maxim can be taken as justification for sharing everything, private property and all, it really suggests the basis for social responsibility and general welfare: for all citizens to be able to meet basic needs and have a chance for a happy life with a little help from their friends, us. But what’s the plan to get that done? Ay, there’s the rub!

Larry Struck is a writer based in Edina.

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Comments (2)

I enjoyed this. Well begun

I enjoyed this. Well begun is half done is a saying I can use. And the rest seems to suggest that we have seen troublesome leadership before so hopefully we too will be able to move on at some point.

another read recently

Tell the truth, there's less to remember.