Saturday, July 23, 2005

An Emperor Should Die On His Feet

Usually Montaigne's essays show how little things have changed. His short essay "Against Indolence" serves to reveal how much our time differs from his and the centuries before. In this essay Montaigne writes about two kinds of kings and princes, the kind that lead their troops in war and the kind who do not go into battle with their men but accept the honor and glory won by them. The essay begins with a short anecdote about Emperor Vespasian who, though mortally ill, refused to disengage from the running of his empire because he said, "'An Emperor should die on his feet.'" Montaigne takes this as a credo all leaders should have and suggests that "we ought often to remind kings of it to make them realize that the great charge entrusted to them is no idle one and that there is nothing which can make a subject more rightly lose his taste for exposing himself to trouble and danger in the service of his prince than to see him meanwhile indolently engaged in occupations base and frivolous, nor lose his concern for his protection than to see him indifferent to ours." A leader who engages in indolence "ought to blush with shame to claim a part in them [victories] for his own renown when he had contributed nothing to the task but his voice and his thinking--not even that, seeing that in tasks such as these the counsel and commands which bring men their glory are exclusively those which are given on the spot in the midst of the action." What a different world this might be if our kings, princes, prime ministers, and presidents fought on the front lines with the men and women they expect to be willing to give their lives for the cause, for the country. How can we expect these men and women to willingly give their lives when their own president would not? While a certain president frequently takes much needed breaks to go to his ranch and cut brush, those who have already served their term of duty are not being allowed to return home. How can one believe the sincerity of praise for those who are serving their country in the military when it comes from a certain president who shirked his military duty, who, in all probability, went AWOL? If we lived in a world that required our leaders to be first into the fray there would very likely be fewer frays to leap into. And the ones that did need to be fought would be, perhaps, much more carefully planned. It is easier to send someone else off to die on your behalf, eulogize their bravery and courage and claim it in honor of their country which then becomes the success and glory of the leadership--see what I have done as your leader? Maybe in these days of modern warfare it is too much to expect our leaders engage in the fighting themselves. But is it too much to ask that they, at the least, give the appearance of being concerned, of keeping on top of what is going on, of knowing, hour by hour what the situation is? Is it too much to ask of a president that he be informed in great detail by his commanders, that he stay up into the wee hours worrying and working instead of saying, in all seriousness, yeah, I've seen what's going on on the tv? Montaigne is right to be against indolence in leaders. Montaigne did not live in a democracy and so could do nothing but write his essay. I, however, do live in a democracy as do quite a few other people these days. I, we, do not need to be indolent like our leaders. We can do something. What is that something going to be? Next week's Montaigne essay: "On Riding 'In Post'" and "On Not Pretending To Be Ill"