Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude. – Thomas Jefferson
Lawgiver is one of the books included in Good Book: a Humanist Bible. It is a complete introductory course in the wisdom traditions tied to leadership and statesmanship and is useful in evaluating the ethical questions one may face as a leader. Everyone in a position of leadership would benefit from studying Lawgiver, which can be thought of as a Bible of Leadership.
Lawgiver was a much more enjoyable read than I expected it to be. It incorporated some illustrative narrative in addition to the didactic content. Below is an thematically-organized overview with some commentary on the book.
The Use of State and Law
Chapters 1-4 argue that the aim of government is security and liberty, and that vices can’t be removed by being made unlawful; that prohibitions of free speech and violations of liberty only produce hypocrisy, flattery, sedition, and corruption. These are very relevant arguments today. At once, this represents a critique on the war on drugs, on state paternalism, on anti-blasphemy laws, and on every attack on civil liberties.
Chapter 11, speaking on the purpose of the state, explains that all communities assemble to seek good, but the state is assembled to seek the highest good; and that there are different kinds of state, useful according to circumstances.
Chapters 12-13 explain what a constitution is (as opposed to laws), and that a constitution is stable and long-lasting if it includes all the political elements. Three types of government are discussed. It is argued that the end of a community is the happiness of all its members.
Chapter 14 explains that one must know the good life before one can know the good state or government; and that happiness (either as virtue or pleasure) relies more on internals than externals.
The Art of Leadership
Chapter 6 deals with the wisdom of alliances: both friends and enemies will respect and trust us if we take sides instead of remaining neutral, and only non-friends demand neutrality. Verses 20-22 advise never to ally oneself with someone more powerful than one is, as then we’re at their mercy. Chapter 7 deals with how there should be roles and how we should celebrate and reward those whom we lead.
Chapter 8 teaches the art of remaining imperturbable as a leader, and discusses some of the necessary virtues of a leader. Later on, Lawgiver argues that it is better to rule by trust and goodwill, and warns against bribery.
Delegating tasks according to skills is important, as the choice of assistants is one of the first things by which people form their opinions about leader. Chapter 9 tells us how to judge a good assistant and how to win assistant’s loyalty and trust.
Task delegation is resumed in chapter 24, where it says that the statesman reserves for himself only the most important events and matters, and delegates all other tasks to good, trustworthy men according to their skills and is aware of his affairs. This chapter also endorses (v. 28-34) the wisdom of plural leadership models as more efficient, less taxing, more cooperative, saying that when the leader does it all he will make mistakes. Teamwork is also more enjoyable. Later, in chapter 26, another perspective is added to this when the author discusses checks and balances: if people invite sovereign power to weigh in in all matters, a population enslaves itself to the state.
On Keeping the Faith
Chapter 10 teaches the wisdom of solving conflicts, and speaks of when leaders may feel like betraying their covenants. There are two ways of solving disputes: men do so by agreement and beasts by contest. If the first fails, sometimes a leader must resort to the latter. We are advised “not to keep the faith” when it might be turned against us, or when the reasons for our pledge no longer exist. No one’s bound to keep the faith if it’s injurious, and a good leader won’t request it.
Sometimes leaders have to feign faith and good qualities; but this becomes necessary only when virtue can not triumph. According to the author, these means are vindicated by history, not by philosophy. This is an interesting ethical gray area.
The Public Life
Live unknown (Lathe biosas). – Epicurus
Chapter 15 explains how the public life can be a bad choice, how once chosen it can’t easily be quit and we must serve those we wish to rule or offend those we wish to please. It explains that it’s not safe or smart to try to change the character of a people, but if we know by what things people are naturally led and pleased, we can slowly lead them. The author later explains that statesmen shouldn’t let disagreements subsist and advises several strategies to sway the people.
Chapter 16 continues discussing the public life saying that there’s no privacy, that it requires restrain of character, focus and single-mindedness. It jokes that people often vote for things that they dislike.
He who lays under a good tree, gets good shade. – Latin American proverb
Chapter 19 goes into the quick, slow, and noble ways to gain fame, which include defeating a public opponent. If we attack a good man, we will become public enemies and be destroyed. Chapter 20 continues by recommending that we slowly gain fame and power by association with a mentor as a protégé, so long as the mentor is of good character and isn’t envious. This advise was given to Alexander the Great when he was young: to gain friends for as long as another is king.
Chapter 21 resumes the conversation on the public life by saying that if we give up friends for it, we will attract flatterers and that we must learn to balance private and public affairs by choosing friends with our same aspirations and values, that complete and perfect our work. We must be mindful that they don’t err or take advantage of the situation; we must grant favors but kindly reject absurd or base ones as “not in accord with their own excellence or reputation”. Chapter 22 continues discussing favors to friends for mutual aid; and says that for the sake of common goals and of the state, enemies should put aside their animosity in pursuit of higher ideals.
A Leader’s Word
Careful choice of expression has always been a major teaching in many of the world’s wisdom traditions. Chapters 17-18 deal with the importance of oratory. It later advises that maxims, metaphors and examples can be used to dramatize what is meant; and that ridicule or derision should only be used in self-defense or for didactic purposes.
Chapter 23 deals with frank speech, saying that we should give testimony in just cases even for enemies; criticize opponents by mentioning someone of better character; and then goes on to say that the proper way to state blame is not by insult, only frankness, and with the goal of bringing repentance. Abusive speakers eventually get their mouths shut.
There are several instances where advise is given on how to resolve a variety of conflicts. Chapter 33 closes by explaining that state discord often starts as private disputes among friends, but later spill into larger arenas. A good leader reminds the people of this and contains these smaller disputes. After a detailed description of the good, prudent man of kind demeanor and speech in chapter 31, the book closes saying that others will yield to us if we are mild and gentle, and rivalries become less important.