On murmuring, bad authority, and the abdication of responsibility

Murmuring and the Articulation of a Grievance

Over the past week, I have been discussing the nature of good authority, the education of those expressing disquietude, and the challenges posed by individuals dissatisfied with the habitual exercise of institutional power. I suggested that, far from being byzantine or draconian, St. Benedict’s conception of murmuring was in reality a good, perhaps the best, approximation of the starting point of the governed’s discontent. Murmuring, recall, is the guttural reply to power when that power is deemed–rightly or wrongly–unjustified, excessive, harsh, or inapplicable. Murmuring implies that the person murmuring has been harmed and that she can no longer offer up her obedience freely and wholeheartedly. In short, murmuring is the nub, the first stirring, of disobedience.

In “On Murmuring as a Clue to the Problem of Authority,” I laid out 3 possible cases and then said that I would pick up the thread in future posts. In the first case, which I examined on Wednesday, the murmurer’s “claims” were without warrant. I argued that the murmurer needed to be re-educated. In the second case, I wrote,

Suppose the murmuring is justified and that it is “directed at” or “addressed to” a figure of authority. This “claim” reveals that the addressee lacks legitimate authority. Hence, the murmuring should lead to admonition, reform of conduct, or an inquiry into the possibility of finding a suitable replacement.

Notice the quote marks setting off “directed at” or “addressed to.” A murmur is not yet an articulation. As a result, the murmurer will have to learn how to transform the inarticulate murmur (or eye roll, snort, brow wrinkle, chest tightening, etc.) into an articulation of a grievance. “I have been wronged by X in such and such a way and on such and such a grounds.” The wronged is now pointing at the figure in question at the same time that he is making an appeal to some norm or standard.

The Source of Bad Authority

For the moment, let’s be agnostic about what is to be done with respect to a figure of bad authority. Reprimand her? Admonish him? Demote them? Throw the damned bums out? Let’s instead focus our attention on the source of bad authority. What makes a bad authority bad? In virtue of what can we say that this authority has not been exercising her authority prudently and wisely?

On this question, the writers of The Rule of Life of the Community of Jesus state,

For grave reason and for the welfare of the Community, it may be the judgment of the Council and the Board of Directors that the Superior be removed from office. Valid reasons include:

–repeated serious violations or disregard of the Rule of Life;

–mental or physical incapacity to perform his/her required duties;

–habitual neglect or dereliction of duty;

–malfeasance or grave scandal due to culpable behavior. (43)

The first is a procedural problem. The second is a health concern. The third is a question of moral obligations. The fourth is a question of character. The first problem is not philosophically interesting because it refers the matter to a code within a manual. If the manual has gained the consent of the governed, then the conflict should, in principle, be easily resolvable. The second problem is straightforward and, in most cases but not all, pre- or a-philosophical. The final problem is very severe–let’s say we’re reviewing a sex scandal–and yet not usually philosophically unclear.

This leaves us to examine the “habitual neglect or dereliction of duty.” The source of bad authority, on this conception, is the failure of the authority figure to fulfill duties and responsibilities for the good of the one into whose hands she has been entrusted. Which?

What Responsibilities Have not Been Fulfilled?

Earlier in The Rule of Life, we read that the Superior must fulfill 3 basic responsibilities. First, she must be a “shepherd” who “cares for the souls entrusted to his/her charge”–specifically, a protector of the “personal needs of others.” Second, she must be a “teacher” who helps the pupil to undergo “transformation” through spiritual exercise. And, third, she must be an “administrator” who ensures that the practical affairs of the organization are in order. In essence, she must be a good nurturer, philosopher, and businesswoman at once. What is especially beautiful about this ethical vision is that it presupposes that protecting the other is a necessary precondition for self-transformation to get under way. If the other is to test herself on the “first floor” and if she is to aspire to become a better, wiser, more humane person, then he must feel that the authority, as a “shepherd,” will also and always provide some “ground floor” shelter. Moreover, only if the organization is financially stable can protecting and educating continue on into the future.

Now, once it has been articulated as a grievance, the murmurer voices one of three charges.

  1. The Superior is not a shepherd. She has failed to help carry the pupil across the divide. She is not a protector. Hence, the pupil feels fear.
  2. The Superior is not a teacher. The pupil may feel safe with the Superior but does not feel as if she is making moral or spiritual progress in her inquiry into self and world. The pupil feels cheated because the Superior is not wise.
  3. The Superior is not an administrator. The pupil may feel safe and may be able to see that she is making moral or spiritual progress. The trouble is that the Superior seems incapable of meeting the requisite funding requirements such that the school cannot be put on solid ground. Without sufficient financial backing, moral or spiritual progress will doubtless be halted. The pupil’s charge is that the Superior lacks prudence.

I have now considered the case in which unwarranted murmuring requires better moral education (Case 1) and the case in which justified murmuring tells against the figure who embodies authority (Case 2). In the final case (Case 3), I wish to examine the philosophical problems that poison the lifeblood of an organization.

Summary

Day 1“Why We Need Good Authority.” I describe the structure and quality of good authority and good obedience. As the title suggests, I also make the case that we can’t do without good authority if we want our lives to go well.

Day 2: On Murmuring as a Clue to the Problem of Authority.” I cue into murmuring as a primal urge of dissafection and alienation. I then lay out 3 possible explanations for someone’s murmuring.

Day 3: “On Murmuring, Education, and Love.” I examine the first case. A person’s murmuring stems from her improper education. What does good education look like?

Day 4: “On Murmuring, Bad Authority, and the Abdication of Responsibility.” I explore the second case. A person’s murmuring is a sign that the authority figure is not exercising legitimate authority.

Day 5: “On Murmuring, Alienation, and Institutional Failures.” I discuss the third case. A person’s murmuring implies that an institution isn’t working.

On murmuring, education, and love

The Ancients Versus the Moderns

The question we ask of power has changed tremendously. For the ancients, the principal question was, “Who rules? Who is fit to rule? What makes someone a wise ruler?” Their assumption was that the wise ruler would (or could) do no harm. You can see in Plato’s fantasy of a philosopher king the final synthesis of Power and Wisdom.

Are we moderns standing on the shoulders of giants, or are we accusing them of being monsters? In either case, we moderns have changed the topic of conversation. For us, concentrated power corrupts the self and destroys the community; we think it cannot do otherwise. History is said to be the story of the ascendancy of power and the vanquishing of the weak. Consequently, we ask, “What are the limits of rule?” By asking this question, we want to know what procedures, instruments, and institutions are in place such that, if the individuals holding power start to misuse it or abuse us, we can throw the bums out.

Over the past couple days, I have been examining the nature of authority and our need for good authority. Yes, our need for good authority. If we are social animals (Aristotle’s first premise) and if, as social animals, we need to cooperate with each other in order to get by and if realizing common good requires some form of coordinated action, then it follows that some figure or figures will have to be making requests, drawing up guidelines, issuing directives, offering counsel, and so on. We are obedient in those cases where we follow directives with “our whole heart.”

Murmuring is the throaty rejection of wholeheartedness. In speaking of murmuring, St. Benedict cues us into the first signs of disobedience. In the first case I mentioned yesterday, I wrote that “The member who is murmuring has not been properly educated. Hence, his murmuring is unfounded and without reason.” In this post, I insist that the ancient question, the “who rules?” question, applies to the case of the murmurer who has no warrant for his murmuring. In the next post, I examine the second and third cases with an eye to making some sense of the modern question of the limits of rule. I take it the second and third cases are concerned with our reasons for throwing the damned bums out–with chucking poor leaders in case 2, corrupt institutions in case 3.

Pascal and Child-Rearing

“[T]hat is my place in the sun!” Here is the beginning and the image of the usurpation of the earth.

Pacal, Pensees, 295

In my addled brain, I imagine Pascal directing this pensee to the quizzical parent and the murmuring child. The philosophical drama I wish to conjure up will be the scene of education.

The child points and says, “That is my place in the sun! That is mine, I possess it, I want it, and I have no intention of sharing it!” (My philosophical child is whiny but eloquent.) Over time, the good parent–good in virtue of embodying good authority–will have to educate the child in the burdens of the self, the claims of the other, and the ways of desire. “The Latin word educare,” I wrote elsewhere, “retains the agrarian sense of ‘rearing,’ ‘bringing up,’ and ‘leading forth.'” In this sense, the good parent is someone who brings up by leading forth.

What must she do to give the child a good moral education?

  1. Well, she will have to teach the child to distinguish needs from wants. Needs would be that which one cannot do without provided that one aims to survive and flourish whereas wants are like accessories.
  2. The child will have to learn that others exist and that they make claims upon us. The world is animated; as such, it cannot be put in her mouth and consumed in one gulp.
  3. The parent will have to teach the child self-possession. (Getting kicked in the teeth is one way the world serves this lesson up for us ready made!)
  4. The child will have to learn to move from the “lower” to the “higher.” Good desires are refined and civilized; higher concerns and commitments are radiant. E.g., over time, the child’s desire for a tootsie roll is transformed into the desire for dark chocolate. In such cases, when a parent says “no” to junk (trinkets, porn, etc.), she also implicitly says “yes” to nourishment (art, love, etc.). Admonition, in like cases, is the via to encomia and chanting.

Here is the beginning and the image of the love of the earth.

Summary

Day 1“Why We Need Good Authority.” I describe the structure and quality of good authority and good obedience. As the title suggests, I also make the case that we can’t do without good authority if we want our lives to go well.

Day 2: On Murmuring as a Clue to the Problem of Authority.” I cue into murmuring as a primal urge of dissafection and alienation. I then lay out 3 possible explanations for someone’s murmuring.

Day 3: “On Murmuring, Education, and Love.” I examine the first case. A person’s murmuring stems from her improper education. What does good education look like?

Day 4: “On Murmuring, Bad Authority, and the Abdication of Responsibility.” I explore the second case. A person’s murmuring is a sign that the authority figure is not exercising legitimate authority.

Day 5: “On Murmuring, Alienation, and Institutional Failures.” I discuss the third case. A person’s murmuring implies that an institution isn’t working.

On murmuring as a clue to the problem of authority

In Chapter 40 of the Rule of Life, the guidebook that has served as a basis for Christian monastic life for the past 1500 years, St. Benedict discusses how much wine is to be apportioned to each member of the monastic community. Perhaps a “half-measure of wine every day should suffice,” he says, but then he concedes that circumstances may vary such that it becomes “impossible to provide the amount of wine we have suggested above.” He concludes, “Those who live in such a locality [where wine has become scarce] should praise God and avoid any murmuring. Above all else I urge there should be no murmuring in the community.”

Above all else? With these words, Benedict implies that murmuring is not a topic of secondary or tertiary importance; it is a matter of ultimate concern.

In Chapter 34, “Fair Provisions for the Needs of All,” Benedict sounds, as ever, Aristotelian in his understanding of the “more or less”: some members will require more food, others less. Give each his due, in effect. Yet, he cautions, “Above all the evil of murmuring must not for any reason at all be shown by any word or gesture. Anyone found indulging in such a fault must be subjected to really severe discipline.” Here, we espy the “above all” yet again, and here we also see that murmuring apparently merits “really severe discipline.”

To our modern ears, Benedict’s stress on the “evil of murmuring,” evidenced in more passages than the two I cited above, is redolent of Jacobinism. At the peak of the French Revolution, Jacobins maintained a communal life of virtue by making common reference to the guillotine glistening resplendently in the morning sun. In the 21st C., the horrors consequent upon policing a life of virtue have led many sober minds to conclude that value pluralism is the public philosophy for us crooked timber. For philosophers like Isaiah Berlin, there is no getting past our knots and twigs, so we might as well grant this and muddle through as best we can.

However, before we infer that Benedict was a Victorian schoolmaster in disguise, let’s take a second look. No doubt attuned to the tininess of Benedict’s stern words, the editors of Patrick Barry’s lucid modern translation of Benedict’s Rule devote an extensive footnote–only part of which have I excerpted below–to Benedict’s harsh attitude toward murmuring. They write that the Latin murmuratio defies translation into modern English but explain,

In monastic life obedience and love are so intimately bound together that each becomes an expression of the other. Nothing is so corrosive of that ideal as the sort of constant complaining Saint Benedict has in mind when he writes about “murmuring” and “murmurers” in a Benedictine community. The damage is done not by the fact that there is a complaint. There are always procedures for legitimate complaints, which are healthy in a monastic community provided they are not destructive and are honestly brought forward in a spirit which is open and ready to accept a decision. Murmuring is not like that; it is underhanded and quickly becomes part of the “underside” of a community. Thus it destroys confidence and is incompatible with the monastic ideals….

I began this post with Benedict’s warnings about murmuring because I believe his ear is very well attuned to the problem of authority. I think he is trying to give a name to a pervasive mood of dissatisfaction that, in the words of The Rule of Life of the Community of Jesus, “tear[s] at the fabric of community life” (13). For the editors of Benedict’s Rule and for the anonymous writers at the Community of Jesus, murmuring is said to resemble gossiping and secrets except that it is much more instinctual, lying as it does much deeper in the throat. The reason we should cue into murmuring, that guttural, primitive form of disobedience, is that it is an early indicator that there is something the matter with any group, organization, or institution whatever. Its presence implies one of three things:

  1. The member who is murmuring has not been properly educated. Hence, his murmuring is unfounded and without reason.
  2. Suppose the murmuring is justified and that it is “directed at” or “addressed to” a figure of authority. This “claim” reveals that the addressee lacks legitimate authority. Hence, the murmuring should lead to admonition, reform of conduct, or an inquiry into the possibility of finding a suitable replacement.
  3. Suppose the murmuring is justified but that it is “directed at” the group. It follows that the organization to which the murmuring member belongs either does not have a legitimate ultimate aim (telos) or does not have the means (techne) to reach that ultimate aim. In either case, murmuring suggests the early stirrings of dissensus.

I examine these three cases in the following posts.

Summary

Day 1“Why We Need Good Authority.” I describe the structure and quality of good authority and good obedience. As the title suggests, I also make the case that we can’t do without good authority if we want our lives to go well.

Day 2: On Murmuring as a Clue to the Problem of Authority.” I cue into murmuring as a primal urge of dissafection and alienation. I then lay out 3 possible explanations for someone’s murmuring.

Day 3: “On Murmuring, Education, and Love.” I examine the first case. A person’s murmuring stems from her improper education. What does good education look like?

Day 4: “On Murmuring, Bad Authority, and the Abdication of Responsibility.” I explore the second case. A person’s murmuring is a sign that the authority figure is not exercising legitimate authority.

Day 5: “On Murmuring, Alienation, and Institutional Failures.” I discuss the third case. A person’s murmuring implies that an institution isn’t working.