After approaching all the other agencies, Paul decided to try the multinational run by the bully, and was invited in to show his portfolio. In the early stages of the digital revolution, many art directors still displayed their work on photographic transparencies, best viewed on a lightbox. Paul was cordially welcomed into the bully’s plush office, and in the absence of a lightbox, his host looked through the impressive portfolio by holding the transparencies against a window. Clearly impressed, the bully was scrutinising one of the transparencies, when his personal assistant burst in to alert him to an urgent call. The bully erupted in an ugly fury, sending the humiliated woman scrambling for the door. As she departed, he gave a sadistic smirk, and went back to viewing the transparency. But he was abruptly interrupted by Paul, hovering over him with a withering glare, and tugging the transparency free from under his thumb. Not a word passed between them as Paul packed up his portfolio, and walked out of the office.
In the dark depths of a gnawing personal crisis, Paul chose to remain faithful to the principles of his worldview, his understanding of what this life is all about, and the part he is meant to play. The price he had implicitly been asked to pay for financial and professional redemption was his silent acquiescence in the intimidation and humiliation of another human being. He declined the economic relief in favour of his personal integrity. He refused to authorise the abuse of power.
Many people today, probably even some readers of this article, would disparage Paul’s choice. After all, he had his wife and children to provide for, and the rage vented on the PA was none of his business, and “it’s a jungle out there anyway”. “Don’t be so precious”, they would be saying. Yet all they would be adding to the issue is further proof of the reality that the ultimate authority for each and every individual is their own conscience, which is informed by their worldview. The utilitarian, the libertarian, the Ayn Rand acolyte, the neo-fascist, neo-Marxist, the nihilist, and whoever else might disagree with Paul’s decision, inevitably do so on the basis of their own understanding of the meaning of life, and how they intend to conduct themselves in this world.
So, ironically, authority ultimately rests with the followers rather than the leader. What an insanely democratic inference. However, it is inescapably a moral judgment, whether we get it right or wrong. Authority has to be backed by power; but power without moral endorsement has no authority. Leadership, as opposed to coercion, is impossible where the worldviews of followers are seriously at odds with that of the person who wields the power.
Of course, this also works in the negative sense, doing great damage. Citizens who are self-seeking, promiscuous, grasping, and unprincipled will obviously resist a leader who needs them to work together for the greater good of all; employees who are lazy, irresponsible, and constantly distracted are unlikely to support a leader determined to realise the full potential of the business.
Edmund Burke’s famous insight in a letter to one of the members of the National Assembly in Revolutionary France gives classic expression to this reality: “Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.”
The most important consequence of this unsettling aspect of the human condition is primarily an inescapable responsibility to educate ourselves. That means going beyond the ideological attitudes and platitudes rampant in the world today, the unthinking acceptance of the ideas of power-hungry charlatans who prove their untrustworthiness time and again. And it requires of all of us, as individuals, becoming increasingly more acquainted with the treasury of wisdom available to us in the canon of great literary and philosophical texts.
That is the only way to keep at the forefront of one’s mind the sobering truth that authority disappears, to be replaced by raw power, whenever it is exercised in a way that violates its essential purpose – the well-being of all people.