Waiting for a Wise Man
Human beings have an abstruse and potentially dangerous impulse. We yearn to be led by a wise man. The human desire for an enlightened ruler -- whether that leader is spiritual and/or secular -- is ancient; it is widely shared; and it is a seemingly ineluctable human dream. We need to wake up from our reveries for a political sage. It is time to stop waiting for a wise man.
The fact that most people need to be led has been known for millennia. About 2,500 years ago the sophist Protagoras claimed, "The masses of people notice nothing -- they simply echo what their leaders tell them"[i].
The word "sophist" comes from the Greek for "wise man." Protagoras, a self-proclaimed sage, made this statement in private in a meeting with leading Athenian intellectuals and wannabe politicians. In publishing Protagoras' claim, Plato exposed the issue of the need of the masses for the leadership of a wise man to the masses. At that moment the issue became public and, thus, political. (Compare the publication of Protagoras' statement with the public release of Obama's "bitter clinger" speech to a private gathering of some of his elite supporters.)
Although I will focus mainly on the political ramifications, this human need to be guided by someone wiser than we are appears in both religion and politics. There are three manifestations of this need for a sage:
(1) In some faiths, the desire to be ruled by a wise man emanates as a benign and reverent longing.
(2) The religious need for a sage can warp into covetous and corrupt conviction.
(3) For the political sectarian, the urge to be led by a wise man results in a precarious and perilous utopian fantasy[ii].
Christianity and Judaism viably address the human desire to be guided by a wise man by defining the need as spiritual, rather than political, and by positing the fulfillment of that need in the future. Satisfaction of the desire for a wise man is properly defined as love and longing for the Messiah. Critics of Judeo-Christianity rarely see this crucial point: in terms of safely satisfying the human need for a sage, a messianic eschatology simply makes sense[iii]. If I may address the non-believers and atheists reading this: if any desire qualifies for sublimation, it is the desire for a wise man, living here and now, to run our lives.
Like most perils, the menace of the desire for a wise man is a present danger. To be pragmatically blunt, any theology that kicks this can of worms down the road poses far less of a threat of authoritarianism than a cult that claims a wise man is among us at this very moment. For example, members of the notorious sect of Shia Islam known as "The Twelvers" believe that the Twelfth Imam is alive and well. (This minority sect of Islam is popular among the leadership in Iran.) The Twelfth Imam, one Muhammad ibn al-Hasan al-Mahdi, has been around since the ninth century and has been hidden somewhere on earth by God. He is waiting in the wings to bring Iranian-style Shia justice to the world[iv].
The menace to liberty of a religious belief in the existence of a sage pales in comparison to the treachery of the political manifestation of that belief. But before we discuss the political sage, it is important to note that the definition of a "wise man" has changed over time. In order to serve the purposes of ideological fanatics, the definition of the political sage has become less and less stringent. Political philosophers and politicians, well aware of the need of the masses for a wise man, have knowingly lowered the qualifications for political wisdom. The fact that his supporters have hailed Obama as a political messiah is prime evidence for this decline.
The classical portrayal of the political sage occurs in Plato's Republic. The dialogue is, once more, a purported private discussion made public by Plato. Socrates is the main character in the Republic. He is challenged by the sophist Thrasymachus and by two young men (Plato's brothers -- both with possible political ambitions) to define justice. In the greatest philosophical comedy/tragedy ever written, Socrates slowly guides his audience to the notion that the rule of a wise man, or the philosopher king, is the only way to achieve true justice. Socrates also points out that such rule by such a wise man is, at best, a remote possibility and, more likely, a wish or fantasy.
Plato makes a few things clear about the rule of a philosopher king.
(1) The existence of an all-understanding sage is a doubtful premise. In the Seventh Letter (at 341ff.), Plato denies that he is wise and states that he has never met or read the works of a wise man.
(2) If a sage did exist, it is highly unlikely that the masses would recognize him as such. How could the unwise many be able to distinguish a wise man from a slick-talking wannabe tyrant? Just because the many desire to be led by a sage does not mean they would be able to identify one.
(3) Why should the wise man -- who, one imagines, is engaged in staying on top of his wisdom -- want to spend his time solving everyone's political squabbles?
In my opinion, Plato rightly set the standard for the political wise man as high as possible -- so high that, for all practical purposes, it was out of reach. But just as our current crop of politicians never want a serious crisis to go to waste, a new batch of political philosophers decided never to let an important human desire go unsatisfied. Starting with Machiavelli, who gave us the modern version of the wise leader, the bar for the qualifications of a political sage was consciously lowered.
Machiavelli's The Prince was dedicated and addressed to Lorenzo de' Medici, the Duke of Urbino. Lorenzo was the untitled, but de facto, ruler of the Florentine Republic. The Prince offered Lorenzo a pragmatic and vulgar redefinition of the perfect political leader. The prince was not to be wise in his decisions; he was to be ruthless. In a famous paragraph from Chapter 25, Machiavelli stated:
I judge this indeed, that it is better for [the ruler] to be impetuous rather than cautious, because fortune is a woman; and it is necessary, if one wants to hold her down, to beat her and strike her down. And one sees that she lets herself be won more by the impetuous than by those who proceed coldly. And so always, like a woman, she is the friend of the young, because they are less cautious, more ferocious, and command her with more audacity.
Machiavelli, the reader may have noticed, has described President Obama. It is not reasonable men ("those who proceed coldly") who should lead. It is the young and impetuous. After a third or fourth failed "bailout," a reasonable leader might conclude that his economic plan is not working. But politics is no longer a matter of reason. It is a matter of daring, luck, and maintaining power no matter what the cost to the masses. The wisest man has been redefined as the cleverest, the most audacious. Obama's stated vision is The Audacity of Hope -- not the triumph of reason.
Our Founding Fathers were aware, and wary, of the desire of the many for a political sage. The most realistic assessment of this desire ever published appears peppered throughout the Federalist Papers. I have listed a few of the apposite articles below[v].
The Founders' insight into the need for a political messiah, and how to dissuade the masses from fulfilling that desire, was subtle and complex, and it deserves deeper consideration than I have space for here. A good place to begin a more extensive examination is a brief excerpt from Federalist Papers #71. American thinkers should carefully ponder these words of warning and wisdom from Alexander Hamilton. (Emphases in the original.)
It is a just observation that the people commonly intend the Public Good. This often applies to their very errors. But their good sense would despise the adulator who should pretend that they always reason right about the means of promoting it. They know from experience that they sometimes err; and the wonder is that they so seldom err as they do, beset, as they continually are, by the wiles of parasites and sycophants, by the snares of the ambitious, the avaricious, the desperate, by the artifices of the men who posses their confidence more than they deserve it, and of those who seek to posses rather than to deserve it.
The Founders showed tremendous confidence in the ability of average Americans to recognize when we have made a mistake in placing our trust in an elected official. In the Constitution, the Founders gave us the ability to rectify such errors. What the Founders could not do was to quell the human longing to be guided by a wise man. They trusted us to be able to do this ourselves.
Larrey Anderson is Senior Editor for American Thinker. He returns to AT after a long recuperation from two spinal surgeries.
[i] Plato, Protagoras, 317a.
[ii] These three categories often overlap. I have divided them to help keep the discussion as simple and clear as possible. I have addressed the religious portions of this issue as dispassionately as possible -- steering clear of my personal view of Christ as Messiah.
[iii] Buddhism's solution also works, after a fashion, by internalizing the issue. The Buddhist's search for the sage takes place within the individual adherent.
[iv] In my novel The Order of the Beloved, I toy with the quandary we would face if true sages were to appear in this world. I compound the problem by positing the existence of multiple wise men. (As a shameless plug, the novel is now available as an Ebook and in PDF format.)
[v] Federalist Papers, #1, passim. #47, "The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many...may justly be pronounced the definition of tyranny." #49 -- which mentions the impossibility of "a nation of philosophers" -- i.e., the inverse of the philosopher king. #51, "In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects." #69, see the last third of the treatise, which compares the President of the United States with the king of Great Britain. #70, passim. #71, passim.