We look at history and at the present and what pattern do we see? Millennia of dominance of the most aggressive, ruthless, and pragmatic individuals. Idealists and moralists have triumphed on occasion only to discover that their ideas don’t actually work in real life. In a frenzied attempt to make the world fit their vision, they sometimes become worse than the tyrants they replaced.
We also see:
Benevolent rulers tend to be assassinated and betrayed, tyrants more often die in their sleep. In our times, even third world dictators who get deposed end up living a horrible life in exile on the French Riviera with mountains of cash embezzled from their own people.
Why do the most ruthless people tend to succeed while idealists usually fail miserably?
The answer is fairly simple. As horrible as tyrants may be, they are much more in tune with the true nature of things.
Idealists live off of theory and dreams.
Tyrants face the world in terms of stark realities.
The successful ruler stays safe from his own followers through fear. If the risk of an attempt to grab power outweighs potential benefits the system stays stable.
The common people? If kept on the bare brink of survival, they have no time or energy to organize and rebel. The slightest concession to the commoners will only enable them to engage in civil unrest.
So many successful rulers have been tyrants for a reason. They are what the system selects for. If not already a tyrannical, corrupt person at their accession to power, the ruler must get in tune with the Tao of Dictatorship if they want to survive for long.
In such a world, what is a person of benevolent intentions to do? Engage in more moral theory? Create more fictions in which the bad guy is easily winning until an improbable plot twist at the very end?
Clearly staying within the cocoon of idealism is a recipe for failure. Yet the persistence of idealists is summed up by the good guy who fails to take advantage of the bad guy’s moment of weakness with the rationalization: “If I did that, I would be just like you.”
Every time, the bad guy responds by taking advantage of the hero’s moment of hesitation. Every time the bad guy dies, often by some ridiculous self-inflicted accident in order to keep the hero’s hands clean to the end.
In real life, the hero would die while prevaricating. The bad guy wins.
The fictional hero always rejects the Way of the world, preferring to live on a mythical Olympus.
The real hero ends up dead or disenfranchised.
Or worse, the idealists actually end up in power. A month of Thermidor, Puritan England, Calvinist Geneva, or Bolshevik Russia fueled by righteous frenzy ensues.
Are we to despair of any good in our world then?
Well, what about embracing instead of eschewing the Way of the universe?
Is the universe such a bad place or do the benevolent insist on keeping their hands clean while leaving the ruthless as unchallenged kings of the hill?
Could the benevolent person get further by focusing on the way things work before the way they should work?
As a teenager, I was inspired when I came across the ‘Art of Worldly Wisdom’ by a 17th century Jesuit monk named Baltasar Gracian. No other source I’d read offered such a gentle, benevolent, and insightful alternative to a ruthless Machiavellian approach.
He was the first writer I encountered who showed me that the benevolent person need not, must not be willfully ignorant of the ways of society and human nature.
I also remember being blown away when I first read about a Bangladeshi banker named Muhammad Yunus. This man had come up with the idea of jumpstarting commerce in impoverished communities through a system of microloans. The idea proved to be self-sustaining and even profitable. It remains for me a great example of intelligent benevolence.
This man showed himself superior in every way to the simplistic idealists who perpetuate and exacerbate the root problems they’re fighting by continuously throwing donations at dysfunctional countries and keeping their populations locked in increasingly desperate, poverty-stricken cycles of unsustainable population growth.
If benevolence can be in harmony with the Way, why does it seem to be the exception rather than the rule?
Perhaps because humans still operate on impulses of morality and justice that worked in tribal sized groups but which lead to a dysfunctional dynamic in a mass society?
When one’s loved ones are people and the faceless millions of others are a statistic, perhaps the result is a system that selects for those who divide and conquer through the most brutal of tyranny.
One who strives to observe intelligent benevolence would first cultivate an understanding of the underlying problems and then harness a certain Tao of things just as the dictators have. In this perhaps lies hope of breaking the same old cycles that pervade the human story thus far.