The reluctance of power

In the Republic, Socrates takes the view that only those citizens who are reluctant to be in command should be put in positions of power. That power should only be granted to those who have no desire for it.

For modern democracies, this would mean that the candidates with the best and most expensive electoral campaign should be the last to be considered for office. But we reward those who are most committed, not most reluctant, to running. Those who do their utmost to convince us of their suitability. Socrates would’ve remained unimpressed before a Western presidential election. Also because his own society, or any society since then, failed to put this principle into practice. People are reluctant to nominate reluctant contenders.

In the forum and the marketplace, humility doesn’t sell.

One exception: medieval Europe. In the centuries following the dismantlement of Rome, a new leadership model, based on humility, meekness and the rejection of power emerged to compete with the traditional ancient model of strength and potestas. For the first time, it seemed that the reluctance to accept power, the embarrassment of command and the suspicion that authority is corrosive and corruptive, were the distinctive features of the optimal leader. And to put the person who exhibits all of them in a position of power is to undermine the destructive power of power itself. In other words, to solve the Platonic riddle, ‘who guards the guardians?’

The new model didn’t claim its roots back to Plato’s Republic and to Socrates’ idealistic thinking, but to something of far lower pedigree in the ancient world: Christianity. In the gospels, Jesus had challenged traditional values and elevated humility to the highest rank. ‘So the last shall be first, and the first last’.

The first Archbishop of Canterbury had been a reluctant leader. Augustine didn’t show any enthusiasm for the mission Pope Gregory had entrusted to him. It was a huge job with colossal responsibility, but the Italian prior quietly protested he wasn’t up to the task. That was enough to convince Gregory he had found the right man to lead the mission of converting the Saxons of Britain to the Christian faith. Centuries later, another future Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm of Aosta, showed reluctance to wield the power of the Primate of England. In the monasteries and cathedrals of the West, the model of the reluctant leader, though never dominating the power landscape of the land, was gaining ground, courting the ruling classes with the idea that there was strength in weakness and good leadership in unexpected, and often unwilling, places.

The world was closer to Socrates’ ideal than ever before.

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