Friday, November 25, 2016


Machiavelli, wondering about the difference between successful and failing republics, tried to find out what were the key success factors. He found two: VirtĂș and Fortuna, virtue and fortune. Virtue we might call today merits and fortune we would call luck or good-luck.
Whatever our qualities, our merits, our competence, we also need good-luck to be successful. At the very least we need not to have bad-luck. Some people maintain that good-luck can be fostered, even managed. I agree, up to a point. Robert Heinlein said: One man’s magic is another man’s engineering. So what others call luck, may be the result of effort.
We never have everything in hand, though our mental attitude and mental capacity may diminish the influence of randomness and improve our chances to get lucky. All this means that the more qualities we have, the less the role of luck. What qualities do we need?

In his Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, Machiavelli analyses virtue. The main ingredient is prudence, also called practical wisdom, the power of common sense, practical and sound judgment.The second is discipline and the third is justice. Prudence, discipline and justice explain the phenomenal rise of Rome during several centuries. And growing imprudence, indulgence and injustice have brought its slow downfall. Interestingly, Machiavelli considers religion to be the most important determinant of discipline.

Discipline is out of fashion, self-indulgence is the fashion and so indignation with the indulgence of others: undisciplined indignation. Justice is still a powerful concept, though difficult to implement when discipline is weak and self-discipline seems almost a lost art. My guess is that indulgence is directly proportional to drug and alcohol consumption. This is not to mean that discipline and self-discipline can be increased by forcing down drugs and alcohol consumption. It is rather the other way round: more discipline and self-discipline will lead to less consumption.

But what about that key concept of Machiavelli - and for that matter Aristotle: prudence? According to the thesaurus, prudence is a quality that allows people to choose the sensible course. Prudent belongs to the same family as careful, meticulous, scrupulous, circumspect, cautious, discreet, and wary. Prudent implies the exercise of both caution and circumspection, suggesting careful management in economic and practical matters. We may subsume economic matters under practical matters. Therefore, prudence is also called practical wisdom.

Chaim Herzog, one of the pioneers of Israel, wrote about the wisdom of his father, the chief rabbi of Israel. Everybody sought him for his advice. Elsewhere he tells that his mother had to run the house and the family, because his father was no good in practical matters. What other matters are there?

A practical orientation does not conflict with an interest in the world of the mind. William James, who was more open-minded than any modern psychologist about religious, spiritual and parapsychological matters, was also the father of pragmatism. Nothing is as practical as a good theory, said Kurt Lewin, also one of my favorite authors. Which means, by the way, that impractical theories are bad theories.

Even in a supposedly practical field like management impracticality abounds. I remember reading the report of a well-known management consultancy firm. They found that the communication between the directors and between the directors and their underlings was unsatisfactory. So they proposed a 'communication development program,' that - surprise, surprise - they could offer. It seems practical, but it isn't. Communication is unsatisfactory for a reason. Or for many reasons. Maybe people were afraid of a coming merger; maybe people were afraid of each other; maybe the market or the technology had changed and they were lagging behind; maybe one of the directors was sleeping with the secretary of one of the other directors; maybe the directors were too old, too inexperienced, too stubborn or not smart enough. Maybe people belonged too different lodges or service clubs. Whatever the case, improving bad communication without finding out the reasons is as sensible as widening the doors of a shop that attracts not enough customers from the passers-by.

I think prudence always start with facing the facts, checking if these are the facts that need to be faced, if they are all the relevant facts. What are the practicalities? What is desirable, what is possible? What is the objective, what are the criteria, what are the options?

Can we teach prudence? Probably, but it won't be easy. Because imprudence is rooted in personal characteristics and limitations. People are surprisingly fact-resistant and not always solution-oriented. They even may prefer awful conditions they are used too; disasters that may strike others more than themselves; they may indulge in apocalyptic perspectives, they may be set on self-destruct.
The main condition is reality-orientation: seeing fantasies for what they are. A second condition is the ability to face uncertainty. A third condition is simply pride in good work, in right decisions, in solving problems - or better: avoid problems.

Politically, imprudence seems on the rise. It is often called populism. Poor people, they don't know what is in stock for them.

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