Intermediaries

Some pages from: An Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore Zeldin. Beautiful writing, some of my favourite.

“There used to be a clear division between what the timid and the brave could achieve.  All the most prized rewards went to those who gave orders, while those who did what they were told were more or less despised.  But there is a third kind of activity in which the timid and the brave can be on equal terms.  Intermediaries can achieve more than their own personal talents permit. Mice can sometimes move mountains. That is why being an intermediary offers more hope than trying to dominate others, or fighting to have one’s merits recognised. Dropping out is not the only alternative to the rat race. However, to appreciate why so few people have thought of themselves as intermediaries, even when thats what they were, it is necessary to dig around the roots of ambition.

Until recently however, most ordinary people were expected one of two ways, as peasants or as artisans.  That, said Luther, was how they best ‘pleased the Creator’. However, priests tried something different themselves.  They were the first to become intermediaries, and they won enormous prestige negotiating between human frailty and divine strength, even when they were not themselves particularly brave.  Then Merchants set themselves up as intermediaries too, but they did less well; for a long time they were held in suspicion , because they lacked the magic powers and did not know how to inspire ordinary peoples imagination. When famine was an ever-present danger, they were blamed for shortages and for selling at exorbitant prices.  Their god, Hermes,  was trickster and thief.  Plato laid it down that it was impossible to engage in trade and be virtuous at the same time, though his academy was founded by a merchant. St Thomas Aquanis said merchants were bound to have trouble attaining salvation, because the temptation to sin was inherent in their occupation. In China, merchants were officially classified as the very bottom of the social scale, inferior to both peasants and artisans; in India, only members of a segregated caste were allowed to engage in the dirty business of moneylending. Everywhere, retailers were despised because they had to be obsequious to customers, no matter who they were. When Napoleon called the English a nation of shopkeepers it was like calling them a nation of pimps. It has taken intermediaries about twenty-five centuries to be appreciated.

That happened rather suddenly.  A new vision of the universe was needed before it was possible. Intermediaries are another example of how seeing a problem in a different context alters one’s attitude to it.  Nobody knew until the 19th century how two substances could combine to form a third one.  The guess was that they must have something in common, an affinity, a sympathy – objects were spoken off as though they were alive. Newton called this affinity ‘sociability’. It was as though objects could have love affairs; Goethe borrowed from the chemistry of his day to call one of his books Elective Affinities, meaning that couples were made for each other.  Fontenelle marvelled at the way a substance having united with another, then quit to unite with a third: the adultary of objects was as mysterious as that of humans. It was only in 1835 that Baron Berzelius of Stockholm introduced the word catalyst into chemistry, having observed that these combinations often required the presence of a third party.  He did not know how catalysts worked. But the third party was suddenly vital.

The idea of catalysis gives intermediaries a new status. Previously, they were mere links or hyphens, supplying needs felt by others. As catalysts, by contrasts, they have independent existence and purpose; they can create new situations and transform people’s lives by bringing them together, without having arrogant pretensions themselves. To be a catalyst is the ambition most appropriate for those who see the world as being in constant change, and who, without thinking that they can control it, wish to influence its direction.

An Intimate History of Humanity
Theodore Zeldin
155-156

A new model for leadership. I like it. It offers hope.

“The westernisation of the world greatly expanded the numbers of intermediaries living between two cultures or two economies.  The portuguese empire in the East relied on native middlemen called compradors (known in the middle east as dragomans and in China as mai-pan).  When in 1842 the British won the Opium war in China, they likewise sought out native ‘experts in barbarian affairs’, who spoke pidgin English, to manage their merchants who were content to remain merchants (unlike the traditional Chinese merchants who used their profits to buy themselves status as ‘gentry-merchants’.) They sent their sons to Western-style schools, refused to have their daughters’ feet bound, wore western clothes, neglected to master the Confucian classics, became cosmopolitons and opened the door to new ideas, though they were usually more imitative than creative in using their ideas.  They subsidised Sun Yat Sen and the overthrow of the Chinese empire in 1911.  But they did not become European, counterbalancing their services to Western Capitalism by a strong nationalism. They have played a major role in history, but unobtrusively.  Of course, governments have been suspicious of intermediaries whose interests  cross national boundaries, and at various times it has been a criminal offence to speak to foreigners. However, as travel becomes a universal pastime, a new era is opening for intermediaries.

Most advances in science have been the result of intermediaries venturing beyond the boundaries or the paradigms of their disciplines, uniting which come from different kingdoms of knowledge. Musicians have probably been the most important intermediaries of the emotions, bringing together people whom mere words divide.

Chemical catalysts are still something of a mystery: exactly how they get two separate substances to interact is not fully known. It used to be thought that they remained unchanged during reactions, but it is now believed they absorb a small portion of the substances they transform, and in doing so lessen the amount of energy needed to allow a reaction to begin.  It was only in 1926 that the catalysts in living cells- enzymes, which are the indispensible  regulators of chemical reactions in the body, controlling the digestion of food and the release of energy – were proved to be actual substances, not just properties of cells.  In the gradual process of discovering how their activity is controlled, it emerged that sometimes an enzyme is inactive, until converted into activity by another enzyme. This is how blood clots: two enzymes have to combine.

Intermediaries may need other intermediaries to set them off.  That is the new way of looking at the world, as a series of minute interractions in the presence of others.  It means that force is not longer in total command. It means that the humble or the timid can contribute to great adventures without being too concerned as to who is superior to whom: a minute ingredient can have as much effect as a large one. Intermediaries inject an element of the unexpected into human affairs, which can have negative as well as stimulating results; and they are always tempted to demand too high a price for their efforts.  But they flourish when they please all parties equally, when they oppress nobody.

The historical model of the intermediary is Maecenas, who died in 8BC and whose name became synonymous with generosity. He was a rich Roman businessman who greatly increased his wealth by using his connections with the government, arranging the emperor’s marraige, reconciling him with his rivals, negotiating peace with his enemies, using great charm, simplicity, cordiality, treating everyone he respected as an equal; ‘Sleeplessly vigilant in emergencies, but in his relaxation from business more luxurious and effeminate than a women.’ said a contemporary. His pleasure was to encourage the poets of his day, even though everyone laughed at his own literary efforts.  Aware that he owed his fortune to his friendship with the emperor, he bequeathed it all to him when he died. His method was essentially personal; he enjoyed the company of those he helped; it was a mutual relationship. That is what distinquishes intermediaries: they work at the individual level. It is impossible to have an army of intermediaries to destroy disagreement. Not everyone can be a leader, but everyone can be a intermediary.

Maecenas, however, is an imcomplete model.  The name of the mathematician and engineer Archimedes of Syracruce (287-212BC) needs to be coupled with his.  He is anecdotally remembered for jumping out of his bath and running naked through the streets of Syracuse with delight, shouting ‘Eureka: I have found it’, when he suddenly understood why his body felt lighter than water; but he deserves to be remembered outside mathematics too, because he used rational thinking to make difficult tasks easy, and small implements to move great weights, as in the famous screw he invented, in the lever, in the catapult, in the cog wheel. ‘Give me a place to stand on,’ he said, ‘and I could move the earth.’ Intermediaries follow that principle: the way for the weak to move the strong is not by force but by modifying their relationship , changing the angle of approach. When the Romans invaded Sicily, and a soldier entered Archimedes’ house to arrest him the mathematician asked him to wait while he finished solving a problem: the soldier was impatient and ran a sword through him. the trouble with intermediaries  is that it requires a great deal of patience, and above all, an ability to cope with fear.”

Theodore Zeldin.  An Intimate History of Humanity. Pg 160-161

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