Wow! Turns Out It’s Me!

Plato was a philosopher. He neither “sowed nor reaped.” Instead, he made his place in the world by thinking and talking persuasively. In “The Republic” he turned his intellect to the question of creating the perfect society. He thought about the matter very hard and discovered that the best people to govern society were philosophers, i.e., people just like Plato.

Imagine his surprise.

Plato wasn’t the last person to make this shocking discovery. Karl Marx also made his place in the world by thinking and talking persuasively. He studied the evolution of human society (by rigorous scientific means of course) and concluded that all human societies were predestined to evolve to a state of communism in which “men would be differentiated only by their innate intellects.” In other words, Marx discovered that humans would eventually end up in a world in which only people like Karl Marx would stand out.

I bet you could have pushed him over with a feather. I mean, what are the odds his “scientific” investigations would turn out that way?

In the post-WWII era, post-modernist scholars discovered that the truth was a very slippery concept because personal, cultural, political and social influences distorted virtually everyone’s thinking about every subject. However, the post-modernists did discover that one class of people could largely transcend this problem and become the arbiters of real truth for everyone else. That class of people was….

….well, post-modernist scholars.

Funny how it always works out that way. It seems that whenever people who make their place in the world by thinking and talking sit down to solve problems they usually seem to discover that the power to solve the problem lies exclusively in the hands of people who can think and talk. It turns out that every problem from crime and poverty to foreign policy can be solved largely by talking to the right people in the right way. Obviously, this means that thinkers and talkers should be the highest-status, most powerful people in society.

I suppose the rest of us should be grateful that those like Plato, Marx and the post-modernists spend so much time studying how they themselves should ultimately be in charge of everything. Such sacrifice! I mean, think how awful things could get if legions of humanity’s brightest and most articulate didn’t honestly turn their talents to unselfishly finding the best solutions for all and instead spent their time and energies creating baroque rationalizations for their own self-aggrandizement.

A lot of people could get seriously hurt.

11 thoughts on “Wow! Turns Out It’s Me!”

  1. I made a similar point in a posting a few weeks ago in which a young colonel in the army critiqued the army’s general staff officers and found their major weakness was, basicaly, that they weren’t just like him. Now, he may very well be correct in his criticisms, but the description he gave of the best type of candidate for general officer, which just so happened to be a self-description, whether intentional or not, reduced the impact of his article.

    Where I find this tendency to be most prevalent, and most insidiously dangerous, is not in academia’s intellectual never-never land, but in the increasingly powerful legal community.

    Lawyers’ bread and butter is knowing, and manipulating, the law. Increasingly in our society, every issue has become grist for the legal mill, every possible situation needs legislative and legal definitions and regulations, every aspect of human activity and intercourse is scrutinized for its legal ramifications above all else.

    This is a recipe for societal and cultural disaster.

    The members of the legal profession now dominate the legislative and executive branches at all levels of government. They obviously control the judicial branch, from small claims to the supreme court. All questions are subject to an endless process of legalistic analysis, legislative or regulatory action, and increasingly expensive and obstructionist adjudication in several courts, as appeal after appeal eats up both time and resources.

    Faced with any problem, from the personal to the societal, our routine cultural response has been to place in in the hands of lawyers to analyze, legislate about, and argue over, all at enormous cost to the rest of us.

    This is not some form of “evil conspiracy” by a cabal, but rather the result of several cultural tendencies which have come together to produce an unhealthy, Mandarin-like ruling class whose entrance requirement is a law degree, and whose end result is an endless stream of legalisms, arcane and often incomprehensible, which serve to further enhance the power and influence of lawyers, and diminish the control the ordinary citizen has over his or her life, work, and future.

  2. One manifestation, or at least measure, of this, is the various Myers Briggs Type Index types and temperaments. Not only are there particular strengths in combination, there are inevitable blind spots. As only one example, a naturally rule-keeping “j” preference will find the mix-and-match innovative modus operandi of the “p” suspiciously short on reliability and character. The “p” tends to dismiss the other as hopelessly and dangerously hidebound.

    In many years of working with this measure, I have concluded there are tyrannies and chauvinisms of perceptual style, along with the tribalism, arrogance, and ambition to which humans so readily succumb. Not only do I want to sort the potatoes according to my criteria, I cannot properly estimate the market value of my neighbor’s field of red (not white? horrors!) spuds. Professions and even hobbies are likely to be catchment areas for one or more types in preference to others. Hardly anyone carries the breadth, experience, and humility to viscerally appreciate anything approximating the whole without the mushy relativism which is in turn associated with particular types.

    A republic, for many reasons, is the best solution to this problem of blind-men-and-the-elephant apprehension of life, with due attention to emergent informal castes and talents. We may be losing our grip on this kind of flexible, functional cultural infrastructure. “It’s me! What a surprise!” commending itself as the solution to governance always lurks as a default, especially, as this excellent post points out, on the part of those whose calling and pastime is speculation and explanation.

  3. People in many professions tend to assume that people like them have unique insights, and hence should be running things. For a discussion of this phenomenon in business, see my post on the dangers of functional

    While the “turns out its me” effect is by no means limited to intellectuals, it does seem to be more vitriolic among them.

  4. But of course the folks running countries seldom if ever even consult the philosophers and they remain better off hanging out in libraries, department lounges, or under a tree…I think the world would be much the better if we had Provosts running things. They know how to play the game, still are a wee bit accountable, and have sufficient prestige and money so as not feel the need for furthr agrandizement

  5. But that’s just it—that’s the crux of the problem—“if (fill in the blank) ran the world…”.

    It has been centuries since Smith identified the “invisible hand” as a better, more fit “controller” than any small group of oligarchs who always believe they’re doing everything so right, and who inevitably fall into a big hole, and drag their whole society down with them.

    The idea has been ridiculed and condemned and denied and demonized repeatedly by those who can’t imagine just letting all the “peasants” do whatever they want, not because it doesn’t, in fact, work just as Smith said it would, but because there’s no way to guarantee that the millions of ordinary people who actually do the work in this world will do things the way the elites want, unless they are compelled to do so.

    And so the entire rigamarole gets all dressed up as “the public interest” or “the common good” or some other all purpose justification for allowing the current group of “in” people running things to trample roughshod over the rights and liberties of the rest of their fellows.

    It is the assumption, so ingrained in human culture in general, and in some much worse than others, that someone needs to be in charge, making all the big decisions, or chaos will inevitably ensue, that needs to be challenged, discredited, and repudiated.

    Why do I so emphatically reject the collective, and insistently stress the rights of the individual? Because Lord Acton was correct. Because, if I was suddenly “in control”, endowed with endless powers over my fellow citizens, I know I couldn’t answer for myself for a single day, and neither can anyone else.

    The recurring, disastrous proof of that simple axiom is all around us, from recent history to current events in N Korea or Zimbabwe or Cuba or Burma, from Asia to South America to Africa to Europe to the Americas. The degree may differ, but the negative results continue to accrue, from waste and inefficiency in the mildest cases to mass graves and mass starvation on the other extreme.

    Reality will not be denied. These self-serving elites with their endless justifications and rationalizations, regardless of the composition or intelligience of the members, will all inevitably circle that great black hole of self-righteous failure, dragging the rest of the poor fools who enabled them down with them into the abyss.

    Re-asserting and re-establishing the primacy of the individual is the only solution, just as it always has been. That single, truly revolutionary concept is the power source that has carried humanity from horses and oxen to jets and moon landings, from a life expectancy in the 30’s to one in the 70’s, from recurring famine and starvation to our current health epidemic—obesity from too much food and too little back breaking physical work.

    Enough. It’s Saturday afternoon, and I’m waiting for the ball game to start, so I abuse your coutesy and bandwidth once again. My apologies for going so far afield.

  6. Great article.

    All those self-satisfied intellectuals may provide some service to society as awhole, but if they can’t build their own houses, fix their own cars, snake their own plumbing, or defend themselves, they’ll need the rest of us.

    A by-product of civilization is that it allows for a few omphaloskeptics to emerge, and thrive.

    Philosophy is a useful exercise in thinkking, but it often runs up against the cold hard wall of reality and human nature.

  7. Please. Who are you? Up against Plato and Marx? A man/woman of action? May your critique have such influence. May so many ponder your blog entries and still wonder. Your depth. Your intellect. Your opinion. please.

  8. Qui custodes custodet? That is the question. The best ruler is one of us. Then you don’t need a custodes to custodet your custodes because someone with your needs and dreams is in charge. Of course, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely which is another way of saying that the bloke in power used to be one of us but he ain’t any more.

    Which brings us to plan B. Why do we need a custodes? Get rid of the custodes and you get rid of corruption. This is why brothels are run by women. When they hire a male guard, the guard takes over and soon has all the money. So brothels do not have male guards; instead the women defend themselves and if they cannot, they leave town.

    So under either plan A or plan B things will go bad and you will have to leave town which is why there will always be refugees.

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