Thursday, 10 May 2018

The Great Lord and His Sons

A rusted crown lies on mossy mounds.
There was once a great lord. His realm was peaceful and prosperous. He had five sons, and he gave thought to how they should be raised.
He had not been raised to rule himself, as he had elder brothers. They had all died before their father, so the rule had fallen to him. So it was in his mind to raise them all to know what it is good for lords to know. He saw that it would be best for his realm if any one of them could take up the rule of the realm, govern rightly and judge fairly.
Yet his aunt had married the lord of another realm, and had had many sons. They had all wished to take the place of the lord their father when he died, and so had schemed and plotted and killed, and in the end gone to war on one another. All had died, in assassination or in war, and the last at the hands of his people when he claimed rule over a land broken by war. The lord of that realm now was the the great lord's aunt's grandson, and the power in the hands of courtiers ruling in his name. So it was that the great lord saw that it would be best for his realm, and for his family, if none of his sons should greatly desire to succeed him.
And so each of his sons was taken to study in the counting houses, in the lord's exchequer, with merchants and market traders, that they might know their work. Yet also they were taken to work with farmers, miners and artisans, that they might know their work, in the flesh and not merely the mind. Further, they were taken to work with the cooks and servants of the lord their father's household, that they might know their work, likewise. So it was that they came to know not only the management of money, nor yet just its value in terms of what goods and services it might procure. They came to know the sweat and toil that went into each loaf, each apple, each fine-wrought ring or iron pan or steel blade. They came to know the life of those others of their class thought lowest and least worth of note. They came to see that these people were the foundation of the realm, and that lords could justly maintain their lordship only through filling their own role in this economic web.
Each was taken also to study in the courts, to see how the lord their father's judges heard cases and made judgements, that they might know their work. Yet also they were taken to work with the men of law that presented cases and supported those accused of crimes, or those accused of wronging their fellows, or those doing the accusing, that they might know their work, and also know the experience of those ordinary people hoping for justice or mercy from the court. Further, they were taken to work with the gaolers, that they might know the lives of the wretched who had been adjudged criminals, and what it meant to be brought low in the name of justice; they were taken to work with the executioners, that they might truly know what it meant to face that final sanction from which there can be no appeal, and know what it is to be left behind by that final stroke. So it was that they came to know not only the principles of law, but of justice, equity and mercy. They came to know that words cannot describe the meaning of loss of liberty, or of life. They came to know that no judge can be entirely sure of their judgement on all occasions, nor even necessarily most occasions. They came to see that society depended on actions taken to preserve order and uphold justice. They also saw that these actions were also the tools of tyranny, and even for the most benign ends they would seem as such to some who were subject to them. They came to see that lords could fairly maintain their lordship only through ensuring that justice was dispensed evenly and fairly, that equity was upheld, and that mercy was served before vengeance.
Each was taken also to study among the priests and the scholars, to learn the ways of those who lived by their learning. They studied at the academy, learning how geometry was used in surveying and architecture, learning of the languages and cultures of the peoples of the world, learning of this history of the lord their father's realm and those close by, and of those with whom they traded, even those far away. They studied at the seminary, learning the proper forms of obeisance, and offering, and prayer. Yet also they went into the temples and worked with the priests, and the lay brothers and sisters, and saw how they collected offerings and the use they put them to. They worked in the almshouses and the kitchens and saw the open hearts of those who gave to those who needed it that resource in which all are equal, time. They worked in the offices of the high priests, and saw the gifts of the ordinary people spent on rich decoration and lavish dining. The worked in the houses of the great scholars, and saw those whose learning was turned to the benefit of all, and those who learned only to profit, or only for pride. They came to see that knowledge and piety could be made to serve the common good, or to serve those fortunate enough to enjoy a station that allowed great personal benefit. They saw that charity could be made to serve those who claimed to serve it, while others poured all the gifts of soul and flesh into the benefit of others without hope of material reward. They came to see that lords could rightly maintain their lordship only by doing what they could to ensure that the least among their people did not suffer needlessly, that selfless charity was rewarded, and that learning was shared for the benefit of all.
While their land was at peace, it was still needful that the lord their father kept men under arms, for their were wild people to the east of his lands, and they would raid and steal if no-one opposed them. So each was taken also to train with the soldiers, learning the art of killing, but also of camaraderie, of discipline, of the proper care of the weapons of war. Each also was trained with the officers, and learned the principles of the leading of men in war, of tactics and strategy. Each studied under the generals of the realm, that they might understand the steps that would be taken if the people of the wild lands should band together and attack as an organised force, or if peace should fail with the neighbouring realms and war be joined with another disciplined army. They even served briefly with the border guards in the east, and rode with them to chase down a raiding party. They saw the blood, and smelled the stench of death. They saw those with whom they shared camp injured, some maimed, some killed. They saw farms looted and burned, farm folk taken prisoner and abused, or simply put to the sword. So they came to see that even when there is said to be peace, violence persists as long as there are those who desire what others have, especially when they see no other way to obtain it. They understood the depths, and costs, of the preparation for war that continues even in peacetime, but saw also some shadow of the ugliness and horror of war. They came to see that lords could safely maintain their lordship only by protecting their people, but that protection did not merely mean standing ready to kill those who would bring them harm, that peace should be much prized and sought, even while being ready for it to fail.
Then too, they were each taken to work with the couriers who bore the messages of the lord their father to all parts of his realm, and the reports of his agents, his officers and his vassals back to him. They saw his messengers ride to the neighbouring realms, and those of other lords coming to him, to carry greetings, and sometimes warnings. They worked with the diplomats sent to negotiate trade, or road access, fees and tariffs. They witnessed negotiations for marriage, for the protection of travellers, for the avoidance of war. They learned of the work of the spy and the intelligencer, of bribes given and received, of the valuable knowledge that could be obtained from the stable hand, the tavern keeper, the servant and the beggar. They learned the niceties of diplomatic communication, the subtleties of the unstated threat, the conventions of civilised men. They came to see that honesty need not be rudeness, and that it was possible for a situation of mutual disdain to be turned to mutual benefit. They learned that the difference between an enemy and a friend could be as slight as a carefully chosen, meaningful gift, a kind word, or an admission of fault, even a fault long ago. They came to see that lords could honourably maintain their lordship only by ensuring they had enough knowledge of what goes on in their realm, and in the realms of their neighbours, and their neighbours' neighbours, that dishonest conduct could sometimes serve a purpose, and that what might seem dishonest was simply honesty understood through different convention.
When his sons had all worked, and studied, and learned what they safely could in all these occupations, and all were men grown or nearly so, the great lord gathered them together in his hall and spoke to them. He asked what each had learned, and how they would feel should the rule of the land fall to them. He asked how each thought the succession should be determined, and what role the brothers of the new lord should play.
The first thought, and said to him, “Father, I have learned much, and you were wise to have us learn all that we have learned. But I know that I cannot be a good ruler, for I do not see how I could always judge aright those who deserve punishment and those who deserve compassion. I could not know that when I passed a sentence of death, the one who is to die had surely done that of which they were accused, and that there was no reason to explain or excuse it.”
The next thought also, and said to his father, “Father, I too have learned much, and my brother is right to praise your wisdom. But I know that I cannot be a good ruler, for the work of the exchequer is opaque to me. I know the value of a days labour of a skilled artisan or a common labourer, I know the value of nails and of flour, but I fear I shall never understand commerce, of how the profits of an enterprise come to be divided between an owner and his workers. However well I follow the books and accounts, I know that I will never feel I truly understand the complexities of industry or the finances of the realm.”
The third thought, and responded, “Father, it cannot be denied that I have learned much, and truly sending us to work in so many ways was a wise course. Still, I too know that I cannot be a good ruler, for I know that I am not made to be a general, nor yet a soldier. While I know that I can face the field of battle, the thought of turning my blade to the death of a man repels me. I understand strategy and could plan a battle, or a campaign. Yet were I to command such a campaign, my compassion for my enemies would withhold from me the ruthlessness and opportunism that great generals display.”
The fourth shook his head in sorrow, and told him, “Father, I could not help but learn much, and there is much to learn. You were wise to have us learn all we could. But I know that I cannot be a good ruler, for my heart denies me the virtues of a diplomat or spymaster. It is not in my nature to say one thing to this man, and something else to another, the two statements plainly contradicting. It is not my way to go quietly and unremarked about a city, laying a coin in this hand and that, learning what those who go unremarked have learned and witnessed. While I know the techniques of these occupations, and proved myself able to pass without notice, and to dress up a threat as though it were high praise, I cannot press myself to do so every time it is needful. I appreciate the virtues of those who take on those tasks, but I cannot be one of them.”
The last looked at each of his brothers, shook his head and said with sorrow, “Father, truly we have all learned much, and gained greatly by your wisdom. It saddens me to say this, but I too know that I cannot be a good ruler, for I disdain the loud piety and quiet extravagance of the priests. I am entirely unimpressed by the pomp and elitism of the scholars. The work of the quiet men and women of our temples does much good, and the men of learning do much to make better the lives of all, the structures around them demand resources that might be much better used, and in their pride they demand respect out of all proportion to their utility. Were I to be responsible for ensuring their work continued to the benefit of the realm, it is likely that I would cause offence, rather than give them the deference they demand, for I could not coddle them as they require.”
Each agreed they would rule as best they could, should the task fall to them, but none could recommend themselves to the station above their brothers, nor could they agree on any of their number being best suited. When the lord their father asked them how he should determine which should succeed him, not being minded to leave it to the blind forces of chance as to which was born first, each confessed himself satisfied with whatever method he should choose.
The lord their father was sorrowed by each one's analysis of his own failings, and the lack of a clear course in determining succession, and he bade them leave him while he considered their words. Yet he was not then without council, for the great lord had also a daughter, who had sat unremarked, working at her embroidery in the corner of the hall while the men had discussed the future. He loved his daughter, and he knew she would be expected to marry, likely to a lord of great status himself. He had sought to prepare her for this in all ways that he could. Knowing that a lord's wife can be a great help in his work, he did his best to allow her to learn what was needed. As well as learning how to keep a great house, to manage its staff and all the work that went on, she too was sent to learn at the counting house and market, and at the court and the gaol, at the temple and the academy. She was allowed to learn what she could of the work of the courier, the diplomat and the spy, and the work of the soldier and the general. Through these experiences, she had learned wisdom that her brothers had not, and so she emerged from her corner and set down her embroidery, and approached her father.
“Father,” she told him, “your wisdom has borne better fruit than you know. I see your concern for the realm, for how it shall be governed once you cannot govern it, but the solution is clear to me.”
Clear it was to her, but not to the lord her father. He looked at his daughter with new eyes, seeing that she had learned something her brothers had not, and grieved inside that the people would not accept her as ruler. She understood this well, and accepted it. She knew she could not rule in name, and she loved her brothers and would not see them diminished by having her rule in fact. Indeed, she saw that her ruling would not be the best course even if it were possible.
“Between them, your sons have learned much of how the realm is run, and how it functions in all areas. War, diplomacy, faith, scholarship, trade, industry, justice – it is an impressive education. Yet you seek to choose between sons who all own their failings, who each knows that he could not execute some part of the ruler's office with full knowledge and confidence. You would not divide the realm into separate domains, each ruled by one, for you know that would harm the prosperity of our people. Yet you may still divide the rule without dividing the realm. Let each take on a task according to his measure, and be supreme in it, and in all other matters let the five be equal. Let them rule together, each giving his task his full attention, that he may learn to be most wise in it. That each knows also the work of the others is good, for they shall all know how the work of the realm fits together. Thus they shall be able to come together to take decisions that none could take alone, and do so in the fullest of knowledge of how the decision will affect each of their responsibilities.”
The lord her father saw the virtue of this plan, but he did not see how he could choose which son to give which task, for each of them had full confidence in four of the five areas they had studied. His daughter had the wisdom for this, also.
“Each takes a task according to his measure,” she said again to her father. “That does not mean each takes a task he feels confident in, for the man who is confident in a task sees less of the peril, and the man who knows his limitations is aware of the risk. Knowing his limits, the man without confidence listens to those with true gifts for the work, and long expertise. Knowing his ignorance, he continues to learn when the confident man thinks his learning complete.
“Let he who knows he is no warrior take responsibility for war; he will know that he must rely on his soldiers and generals. He will know that his prowess is not great enough to drive him to risk himself unnecessarily for the realm. He will know that he must continue to learn to best serve his people.
“Let he who knows that the full complexities of trade and industry are beyond him take responsibility for the economic prosperity of the realm; he will know that he must rely on those whose lives have been driven down narrower paths. He will know that he cannot understand all the finances of the realm at once, and demand they be organised in such a manner as to make understanding easier.
“Let he who knows the virtues and the flaws of the priest and the scholar take responsibility for faith, charity and learning; he will not give more respect than is due, but he will ensure that the work that is good continues. He will not flatter the wise and learned, but he will value their work and their charity. He will have an eye for the waste of their ostentation, but he will give them their due.
“Let he who knows that his justice will be forever uncertain take responsibility for dispensing it; who could be better, for it is in the nature of justice to be uncertain. He will not jump to hasty conclusions, nor accept without question the decisions of judges, for he shall know the limitations of the work they do. Yet he will also respect them, for he will understand the difficulty and gravity of their task. He will have sympathy for the burdens of the gaoler and executioner, and still for those imprisoned or condemned. He will have sympathy for victims and their families, yet also for those accused, justly or unjustly, and for the families of those whom the law must punish, who suffer punishment also.
“Let he whose instinct is to honesty and openness be responsible for diplomacy and the subtle ways of the spy, just as you let them be responsible for the clear and honest communication between those who govern the realm and those who work on their behalf; for valuing honesty makes one respect the cost of dishonesty, even where he knows it is necessary. He will not demand diplomats flatter out of habit, but that they speak as honestly as may serve their purpose, and thus he will be known for dealing direct and clearly. He will not grow his network of spies and agents beyond what is needed, out of pride or ambition, but maintain enough to ensure that decisions are made with the knowledge they require.”
The lord her father felt his eyes were opened, and he saw a future of justice, security and efficiency, but he worried about succession, of how such a system might be instituted and perpetuated. Again, his daughter had wisdom to address this concern.
“Let them each take up their post under you, while you are still strong and vigorous and able to help them learn their tasks. Each shall report to you, and be responsible only for that task for which he is suited. All else shall be in your hands, as it is now. In time, you may decide to step back from active rule, or else we may lose your guidance unexpectedly. By then, you will have made sure there are clear customs for your sons to come together in council, to support you in making the decisions outside of their responsibilities and to oversee each of them in their own responsibilities. When you no longer rule, this council shall govern together, each with oversight of the other, and each participating together in making the decisions not entrusted to a single man.
“As to succession, who can see the needs of the future? If I am right, and this rule of brothers together succeeds, it shall be clear to all that it should be maintained. Let the council discover what means are best to ensure that a responsible and capable man serves in each seat, whether it should be restricted to the royal house or made open to all, whether a man should train his son to succeed him, or find someone most suited among those who serve him and raise him to take on high office. If the realm prospers, our family will prosper, whether we hold the power and rule ourselves, or simply benefit as any other family from being governed wisely and justly.”
And so, when the great lord began to feel the years press upon him, he had already seen that his sons together could rule with great wisdom. He saw that each could govern in his own manner that area for which he was suited by his doubt and uncertainty, and so govern well. He slowly allowed the council to make more decisions, first with his guidance replacing his authority, and eventually without his involvement at all, save when he corrected some grave error. As he absented himself from the council more, the brothers realised that they could make their decisions together better with support, and they invited others whose insight and wisdom they valued to sit with them.
These supporters sat with the council, but not on it. They did not make decisions, but they counselled the councillors that they might make decisions wisely. Their lord their father allowed himself to become simply another one of these, another advisor or officer of state, along with those generals who coordinated the army, and the temple functionaries who oversaw the works of faith, and the wisest of the merchants and scholars, and all those who had wisdom or knowledge to aid them in their work.
Their sister was among these advisors, the lord her father consenting to her marriage below her station, that she might remain to aid her brothers, and that she might have more freedom in choosing her husband. Her brothers learned quickly to listen to her, and by her example their wives also learned, and joined in the work, lending knowledge and wisdom for the benefit of the realm.
When the great lord, the father of the new lords of the council, finally passed from life, he knew that he had done wisely, and feared not for his house or his realm.
Written May 2018
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