Way back in graduate school, I remember reading somewhere--maybe it was Eliot--that only certain cultures can produce Aristotelian-level tragedy the way the Greeks and the Elizabethans could. The requirement, if I remember right, was a certain kind of belief in the individual--that he or she could create significant change, could demonstrate leadership, but also could fail miserably, a kind of high view of the human character. The kind of tragedy Aristotle touted had this purgative, cathartic effect--it changed us, from the inside out. It was imminently moral.
I thought of that idea when I read David Brooks whose column "The Follower Problem," a day or two ago, wasn't so much about tragedy as it was about what he calls "just authority." Some societies recognize it, he says, even glory it in. Some don't. Because they can't.
"We live in a culture that finds it easier to assign moral status to the victims of power than to those who wield power," he says, sounding like the conservative he is. He may well be right. He also believes that we so taken with the notion of equality that "it's hard in this frame of mind to celebrate greatness, to hold up others who are immeasurably superior to ourselves." He still sounds like a Republican, which, for the most part, he is.
But then he says the real moral problem is our inability to think about power itself--about "just authority," which, he claims, is constructed in very fragile fashion on a series of paradoxes: "that leaders have to wield power while knowing they are corrupted by it," for instance, or that "great leaders are superior to their followers while being like them." Leaders have to be superhuman characters who never forget that they aren't. How's that?
The older I get, the more I believe in reign of paradox. "Truth is always elliptical," I was told years ago by an old preacher I really respected. It's never circular. It always has two centers. It forever requires balance.
Finally, Brooks cajoles us, as he often does, for being poor followers, given to believe that our leaders are only in it for themselves, that they're all schmucks, that none of them is as pure as I am pure. "Vast majorities," he says, "don't trust their institutions."
Count me in that bunch.
Once upon a time, however, I received a D in geometry from an eccentric little mathematician who was, quite likely, too brilliant to be a successful high school teacher. He loved math more than he loved us--and for that odd penchant we found him mysteriously fascinating. In a way, I think I envied his indomitable passion for the digits scribbled all over his blackboard.
But I didn't do well in his class, and my mother would have nothing of it so she set me in the car with her one night, drove me herself to that little math teacher's apartment to ensure her wishes would be carried out. I don't know if she had, ahead of time, set up an appointment; in my mind and memory, I was the supplicant, forced to a blind and painful confession.
What I had to do, she insisted, was beg the man for help. I had to tell him that I wanted, above anything, to improve, and then promise, on my honor, to do better. I had to get rid of that report card D.
It was extremely painful, as I remember. There I stood in his apartment, towering over this strange, little man, while outside my mother's engine was running. I took a beating that night even though no one laid a hand on me.
My mother trusted that little man's "just authority." She simply assumed the problem belonged to her son--and she wasn't wrong. The institution of school--she was a teacher herself--loomed more significant in her mind than her son's guilt or humiliation. I was, after all, his follower--and hers. In the classroom, he was the leader and I was the one obliged to follow and to learn.
Nothing close to Aristotelian tragedy happened that night, but I think David Brooks would like that story because that moment dramatically explained to me at least what it meant to be a citizen of the society my mother inhabited, a society in which trust was lavished freely--maybe too freely--to the institutions of our lives.
There's another side, of course--there always is, with paradox. I'm a child of 60s, when authority of all kinds when up like kindling in the fires that incinerated much of the institutional trust my mother honored. That loss Brooks laments.
He may well be right here--he often is. We'd all do well to both understand and honor "just authority." I would. Besides, I'd make my mother proud.