Monday, February 28, 2011

Peter Principle as Vital Energy

A Further Remark on the Peter Principle


By John Taylor; 2011 Feb 25, Mulk 19, 167 BE


Yesterday I wrote an essay about the Peter Principle, a book that influenced me greatly in my youth. I happened to check over the Wikipedia article about that yesterday and Peter's thesis is not as special as I thought. It is derived from a broader idea, the tendency to use a tool until it either breaks or outlives its usefulness.

The article states:


"The Peter Principle is a special case of a ubiquitous observation: anything that works will be used in progressively more challenging applications until it fails. This is "The Generalized Peter Principle". It was observed by Dr. William R. Corcoran in his work on corrective action programs at nuclear power plants. He observed it applied to hardware, e.g., vacuum cleaners as aspirators, and administrative devices such as the `Safety Evaluations' used for managing change. There is much temptation to use what has worked before, even when it may exceed its effective scope. Dr. Peter observed this about humans." (


This reminded me of a similar observation that the Master made in Paris. Just looked it up, and here it is, from a talk called "The light of truth is now shining upon the East and West," given a hundred years ago this October 23rd,


"When a man has found the joy of life in one place, he returns to that same spot to find more joy. When a man has found gold in a mine, he returns again to that mine to dig for more gold. This shows the internal force and natural instinct which God has given to man, and the power of vital energy which is born in him." (Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 33)

So, the fate of every tool, appliance or idea is to be used and then in the end cast aside as soon as it ceases to serve its purpose. It applies to you and me, and the services we offer God and mankind. And it even applies to the religions, as progressive revelation teaches.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Thoughts about the Peter Principle

Wisdom Before Justice


By John Taylor; 2011 Feb 24, Mulk 18, 167 BE



The Peter Principle and "Unsought Appointment."


Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull, "The Peter Principle, Why Things Always Go Wrong," William Morrow and Company, New York, 1969


I just finished reading once more a book that was a bestseller in my formative years, "The Peter Principle, Why Things Always Go Wrong." I remember stumbling across it in the Ancaster High School library. Since it was, ostensibly, a humor book, I gobbled it right down. However, the book also had, it seemed to me, a message that was both original and serious. The questions it deals with still fascinate me, so several months ago I pulled a copy of the Peter Principle that I had bought in a used book sale down off my bookshelves and slowly went over it again.


The Peter Principle, you will recall, is the observation by a "hierarchologist," a self-styled student of hierarchies, that workers always rise to the level of their own incompetence and then stay there. No matter how skilled or dedicated they may be, good workers will be promoted in their organization until they hit the brick wall of their own imperfection. If we were perfect in every way there would be no Peter Principle. Humans would just rise and rise forever until, like helium released into the atmosphere, we would soar right on out into space.





But nobody is perfect. We all know that. Human talent is more like hot air; we rise up into the chilly upper levels of earth's atmosphere, start to cool down and sink back down again. No matter how brilliant we may be and no matter how those around us may seek to recognize the value of our contribution and reward us with promotions, the job we do will change around us until we are called upon to do something that we are not good at.


Then we either sink or, in an organization, stick just where we are. We have risen to the level of our incompetence. The book lists the many elaborate and often amusing coping strategies that incompetent workers adopt in order to distract from or cover up the fact that they no longer can do what they are called upon to do in their organization.


Peter illustrates his point about rising to the level of one's incompetence with an organizational chart in the form of an isosceles triangle. A small number of leaders head up the organization near the pointy top of the triangle. Under them are the vast majority of support workers, most of whom reside near the bottom line. Normally, anyone who rises from the bottom to the top will hit his or her level of incompetence long before they get anywhere near the summit. That means that only incompetents are going to head up any organization.




One traditional way of getting around this problem is to draw an arbitrary horizontal line two thirds of the way up the triangle. This is known as aristocracy. An aristocratic society in effect draws an artificial line beyond which no member of the working class can cross, no matter how qualified or brilliant they may be at what they do. Only members of the nobility are allowed to take positions at higher levels of management.


One might expect that organizations following this practice would collapse in a second.


But, Peter points out, it actually worked very well for a long time, thanks to his Peter Principle. The horizontal line (also known as a glass ceiling) had the advantage of assuring that competent workers below the line did not always rise to their level of incompetence. Bad for their career path, but good for the organization. Meanwhile, a fresh talent pool was introducing new workers into the upper levels, many of whom did not have the time to rise to the level of their incompetence before they reached the point of the triangle. This meant that leaders in the higher reaches of an organization often knew what they were doing.




Here is an example from history that Laurence J. Peter does not use, but I think it works. In the First World War, only aristocrats (who had a monopoly on university educations) were allowed to be promoted in the army beyond a certain rank. This worked as long as the military stayed at a steady size. However, as hostilities broke out millions of new soldiers entered the war. There were many more positions available for generals and other brass. The aristocracy's talent pool suddenly was, relatively speaking, much smaller. In this much larger organization, there was ample opportunity for aristocrats to rise to the level of their incompetence. Thousands of upper class twits could think of nothing better than sending millions of soldiers forward to be slaughtered in the no-man's-land between the trenches.


By the time the Second World War rolled around, lessons were learned. The glass ceiling was smashed, the line of privilege crossing the triangle erased. Generals were better prepared and were promoted strictly according to merit. Yet the slaughter was far worse in the Second World War than in the first, even if you count the flu bug that killed millions just after WWI. What was going on? Sure, killing technology was more advanced in the second conflict, and civilians were targeted along with combatants, but the fact remains, the better soldiers are at their job, the worse off we all are.




In effect, what had come about was a sort of meta-Peter's Principle. Organizations rise to the level of their incompetence as well as individuals. The better an organization is at its job, the more likely it is that it will be promoted to a position where it is ill suited to solve the problem set before it.


This is what happened in ancient Athens, which started off being run by tribes. A tribe, like many nationalist organizations today, is a monolithic ethnocracy, an organization based on similar outlook and training.


Leaders in a tribe rise to their incompetence based on identical backgrounds, the same language, culture, etc. For a long time, Athens got nowhere fast, ridden by tyrannies and tribalism. Its tribes or family groups consisted of hundreds of fighting organizational triangles, and there was no way between them. They fought with one another and created nothing but noise and strife. Athens was in an impossible situation. Then, Cleisthenes came up with a master stroke, the brilliant idea of drawing a line across the top of the triangle of their organizational chart.


This arbitrary line they called the Demes.


A Demes was a sort of district or neighbourhood. Once the new line was drawn, the tribe was no longer the only way to advance in the Athenian hierarchy. A citizen was identified by Demes, not family group; in order to vote, you used your name and the Demes in which you lived. In this way, a new, inter-tribal talent pool was created. Nobody had heard of a Demes before Cleisthenes, but it did not matter.


Having that Demes line drawn made the creativity of Athens possible. Not least of this was the invention of democracy. In fact, that is what Demes means, etymologically, a common population, a People Place, a grouping based on location rather than genes. The Demes was a district or place where members of tribes walked out of their triangle of tribalism and became something new: people, citizens, cosmopolitans. The world has never been the same since.


As I finished The Peter Principle I was reminded more and more of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Christ was teaching the same thing with this story. It is a sort of ethical Peter Principle. If you want to do something truly moral, the parable teaches, do it to somebody outside your usual organization, your normal point of reference. Do good to an outsider, as the man in the parable did to a beaten and robbed Samaritan lying half dead on the road. From here, from acts like this, from shots in the dark come real ethical competency. Such acts have a spiritual effect far beyond the outward action. Do good, but not only in your own group to those with the same training and ways of thinking. Go outside the box, into the void where there are no rewards or punishments, go to wherever your own sense of what is right can be the only referent. Do it in the name of compassion, and do it for knowledge. For, "the heaven of divine wisdom is illumined by the twin luminaries of consultation and compassion." Here abides true moral competence.




In effect, extending succor to the Samaritan draws a line across the void, like the Demes did in Athens. It is no coincidence that once the arbitrary Demes line was drawn on the triangle of the Athenian organizational chart, a certain wise man arose, the father of philosophy. Socrates was the first in history to define clearly just what wisdom is. Socrates recognized, openly, honestly, that he had no knowledge of what wisdom is.


Yet the Oracle of Delphi chose him, saying, "There is none wiser." His elevation to this station was not sought, it came from outside. Already, in terms of the Peter Principle, Socrates was utterly incompetent. He himself saw that he had reached his level of incompetence, yet he pointed it out and said to one and all,


"This, our own ignorance, is what we should deal with first. Start with what you do not know, not with what you do know or, to speak more accurately, what you think you know. Begin by recognizing that we have no sure knowledge of the most important things (including God Himself). Then, deal with it. Begin by starting an enquiry with all, groups and individuals, and try to find out together what wisdom is. No individual will ever know the answer, but as long as we see our limitations, in our group mind maybe we can attain to wisdom. Only with such dialectic cutting across organizations will wisdom lay the groundwork for justice."


This is why, I think, Baha'u'llah depicts justice and wisdom as two parts of a single procession. Wisdom goes on like a flag tilted up, before the march of a just king. Only after him does justice bring up the rear. He says,


"Blessed is the king who marcheth with the ensign of wisdom unfurled before him, and the battalions of justice massed in his rear. He verily is the ornament that adorneth the brow of peace and the countenance of security." (Baha'u'llah, Tablets, Lawh-i-Maqsud, 164-165, Gl. 219)


Why wisdom first, before leadership, before justice? I think it is because heart and mind lead the body. Justice is force, reward and punishment. However, the sanctions of justice are only for those who transgress. Wisdom is love and words of love, and these are always in the van. Wisdom is learning, consultation, and it is actions of love, compassion, as Baha'u'llah tells us. Wisdom is preventive medicine. It dissipates wrongs before they can take place by washing away the cause, ignorance, the folly of imagining we are adequately competent. This is why the House of Justice so often refers to "unsought appointment" as a distinguishing mark of the Cause. They wrote,


"It is solely by the process of free election or by unsought appointment that the members of the institutions of this Order are assigned to their positions in it. There is no profession in either the teaching of the Faith or its administration for which one can train or to which a believer can properly aspire." (Universal House of Justice, 1992 Dec 10, Issues Related to Study Compilation)


For the House of Justice an entire army of the wise, of latter-day Socrates, must go on before, laying the groundwork, setting up the wisdom that is needed in order for justice, the titular, eponymous goal of the House, to be codified, promulgated and enforced. If everybody were as honest about their limitations as Socrates and a true Baha'i are, then nobody would be promoted beyond their competence. All appointments and promotions would be unsought, because all would fear going beyond their own limits. Such is the fear of God.


The energy for this moral courage comes from the love created by the suffering of the Manifestation himself. Baha'u'llah declared that although He Himself did not seek the high position of leadership, He still suffered more from the heedless followers of the Bab than any Manifestation before Him or after,


"On every side We witness the menace of their spears, and in all directions We recognize the shafts of their arrows. This, although We have never gloried in any thing, nor did We seek preference over any soul." (Baha'u'llah, The Kitab-i-Iqan, p. 249)


It is in memory of this unsought appointment by our Lord that we His followers seek not to seek any distinctions but those of the spirit.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Social Media Explained Visually

Just back from Louhelen

Be Kind to Your Institutional Friends

By John Taylor; 2011 Feb 22, Mulk 16, 167 BE


We just got back from our weekend at Louhelen Baha'i School, and after that a short visit to my brother, who also lives in Michigan.


While browsing in the bookstore, I happened to come across a statement by the House of Justice to the effect that our society has many prejudices against institutions, and that we, as Baha'is, need to fight against any tendency to "dis" institutions per se. I was very impressed with this brief thesis. Yes, we do put down institutions. What a great book it would make if somebody expanded upon that thesis! Maybe such a book has already been written, I do not know. I hope that my learned readers will point one out to me.




I immediately bought the book in which I had stumbled across this idea and started reading it from the start. It is: "Messages from the UHJ, 1986-2001, The Fourth Epoch of the Formative Age." I have not yet reached the exact passage that impressed me. However, a search through Ocean just now uncovered a very similar passage from the Guardian, also cited by the House. It evidently is from an unpublished letter by the Guardian, (since it is the only location turned up by Ocean).


"Our present generation, mainly due to the corruptions that have been identified with organizations, seem to stand against any institution. Religion as an institution is denounced. Government as an institution is denounced. Even marriage as an institution is denounced. We Baha'is should not be blinded by such prevalent notions. If such were the case, all the divine Manifestations would not have invariably appointed someone to succeed Them. Undoubtedly, corruptions did enter those institutions, but these corruptions were not due to the very nature of the institutions but to the lack of proper directions as to their powers and nature of their perpetuation. What Baha'u'llah has done is not to eliminate all institutions in the Cause but to provide the necessary safeguards that would eliminate corruptions that caused the fall of previous institutions. What those safeguards are is most interesting to study and find out and also most essential to know." (Shoghi Effendi, quoted in: The Universal House of Justice, 1988 Dec 29, Individual Rights and Freedoms, p. 6)


So, if anybody writes such a book, they would automatically have a blurb from the Guardian, saying that this issue is "most essential to know" about.


This idea that we are unfairly putting down institutions had a special impact on me because, coincidentally, just before we left I had been auditing a book called, "The Company," a history of corporations by a couple of writers from the Economist Magazine.





I learned many things, including the fact that non-economic corporations, such as towns, schools and monasteries, are centuries older than the economic corporations who dominate today. The book also points out that economic corporations, which of course are institutions too, often get a bad rap. Sloppy use of statistics makes them appear larger and more powerful than they really are. Often, but not always, they are unfairly demonized. I must admit that I have been guilty of this at times on this blog.


I had also been thinking about this statement of the Master, which implies that, bad as backbiting and gossip about an individual is, it is that much worse to attack an institution.


"Should ye attribute a mistake to a person, it will be a cause of offense and grief to him - how much greater would this be if it is attributed to a number of people! How often it hath occurred that a slight difference hath caused a great dissension and hath been made a reason for division. ... (Abdu'l-Baha, Tablets, Vol. 1, p. 20)


An individual is just one soul, but an institution is composed of many people. Not only that, an institution represents the thoughts and opinions of many more people who are not directly involved in its operations. Often too, the institution serves even greater numbers of people, many of whom depend upon its integrity.




My first night in Louhelen I awoke thinking, if it is true that institutions are being unfairly put down, how do you love an institution? I remembered how the Master often praised institutions in His public talks. Next time I go through His talks, I should mark examples there where He does praise groups as well as souls.


Later, we had a series of drum circles -- a suggested way to supplement one's study circle activities. It was kind of strange, at first, for a non-musical type like me to be banging on a drum or other percussion instrument. Then it became a liberating experience, like a multi-directional conversation where everybody gets to talk and everybody can listen at once to one another, each and all, at once. The good drummers were doing better, of course, but everybody else was contributing. It was a new experience.

Pounding away at my tambourine-like contraption, I thought about what institutional love implies. Yes, soon there will be ways and technologies that will allow institutions to talk directly to the people. Using ARS setups (Audience Response Software is a clicker that allows an entire gathering to respond to questions) an LSA, for example, could engage in a Socratic Dialog with its entire constituency.


Never in history has it been possible to establish such a dialog and relationship between two groups like that. And indeed, if you hook up the question and response with some sort of musical activity like this, who can imagine what might happen? What a beautiful love affair will soon begin between institutions and people.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Silvie's Declaration

The message by the fireside's fireside.

Silvie, Mrs Aghdas Javid, and her brother Thomas

From Mrs. Javid's Fireside

The speaker, Tracy.

A rare photo, someone actually signing their declaration card. Not a reenactment, the real deal.

All praise be to God!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


Praxeology; Truth in Language, Ethics in Action


By John Taylor; 2011 Feb 16, Mulk 10, 167 BE


The birth of science in the Sixteenth Century was accompanied by dozens of attempts to devise artificial languages that would approach the perfect, primal language that Adam was thought to have invented in Eden. Invented languages were all the rage among progressive thinkers. Many new languages were proposed based not only on existing languages but also everything from music to logic to mathematics. John Amos Comenius contributed an artificial spoken language whose grammar, he claimed, made it impossible for a speaker to tell a lie. Many of his writings were burned by pillagers in a war in present day Poland, from which Comenius barely escaped. It is conceivable that he did make up notes for such a language. I often wonder, though, how such an inherently ethical language might have worked.


Surely, though, free will and ill will, and therefore the ability to lie, are basic to thought. How could thought even exist if there were no way to make anything but perfectly veridical statements? Would that not be as impossible as legs that cannot trip or fall? A biped's very ability to walk depends upon a sort of controlled falling. Even if a totally truthful language were possible, would it be desirable? In that case, there would be nothing to distinguish truth tellers from liars. As the Ricky Gervais film, "The Invention of Lying," demonstrates, the inhabitants of a world where anything less than total candor was never encountered in everyday speech would be hopelessly naive.


On the other hand, computer brains may well advance in sophistication to the point where they gain free will, and therefore the potential to consciously lie. Or maybe that will never be possible. There may not even be a need to introduce fail safes. As anyone who has written computer code knows, as soon as a computer registers a "divide by zero" error, it crashes immediately. Perhaps when some high level computer language in the future attempts to tell a lie it will encounter the Pseudomenon, the Liar Paradox, like a brick wall. As soon as it thinks, "I am telling a lie," the paradox would kick in, register the self-contradiction, and bring the whole chain of thought crashing to the ground.


In that case, Comenius's dream might be not only possible but unavoidable. We may imagine surgeons implanting computer chips with language circuitry into the brains of patients deprived of speech for neurological reasons. Then, when the patients open their mouths to lie, their speech chip would short-circuit, shutting down their voice box. Only silence come out.


Even if we have to introduce artificial fail-safe mechanisms in order to assure that intelligent machines do not lie to us, this is little different from what we already do with humans, each of whom is a potential liar. This is just what Isaac Asimov proposed with his famous "Three Laws of Robotics," laws that were built into the "positronic brains" of his fictional robots.




Many philosophical problems arise from this idea, however. Some, Asimov dealt with himself in his series of novels and short stories about robots. Others cropped up later on. One contradiction is the theme of the movie based on Asimov's book of the same name, "I, Robot," starring Will Smith. Some of these dilemmas are: If a robot cannot harm a human being (1st Law of Robotics), how do you define "harm?" How can any agent know beforehand all the results of a given action? An entire discipline, history, debates causes and interactions among conscious agents in the past. Surely deciding the consequences in future of present actions poses difficulties many orders of magnitude more daunting than what historians deal with.


On the other hand, in spite of these reservations, once we build a working moral compass, no matter how inadequate and complex it may be, it would then be a simple matter to miniaturize its circuitry until it fits onto a single chip. This is just what happened with Geo-synchronous Positioning Satellite devices, designed to calibrate one's location on earth using signals from overhead satellites. These calculations are so demanding that early GPS devices were as large and heavy as a small automobile. Now GPS chips are tiny and inexpensive, built into cell phones and many other hand-held gadgets.


So, if GPS detectors can be made ubiquitous, why not a working moral compass? At the very least, this fail-safe device would assure that no robot could intentionally harm a human being. The "Predator" drones which already are dropping in price and which are capable of attacking any point on the surface of the earth, would cease to pose the clear and present danger that they do now. At least one activist is even suggesting that Asimov's Three Laws be built into corporate charters. This, he suggests, would reduce the harm from human-run institutions as well as from autonomous machines.


Robotics is already advancing to the point where, it is claimed, the first "moral" robot has already been built. Named "Nao," this machine works as an orderly in a nursing home. Nao moves about the facility performing rudimentary services like making deliveries, distributing medication and changing the channel on the residents' common television set. Its programming is based on a decision tree of priorities allowing Nao to answer queries and requests from residents, while making elementary choices among several possible courses of action. (Michael Anderson and Susan Leigh Anderson, "Robot be good; Independent minded machines will soon play a big role in our lives. It's time they learned how to behave ethically." Scientific American, October, 2010, p. 72). Nao can decide, for example, whether to answer a request to change the channel or before that administering pills to a certain bed ridden patient. The makers of Nao hope that as working ethical robots gain and share their experience, they will be ever more prepared as they come across new situations.


Like a human worker, when they encounter an unresolvable problem they have the choice of calling for help. The moral robot does this wirelessly, even sending out "crowd sourcing" queries onto the Internet. With the aid of experts, lawyers and ethicists, and even random groups of interested parties on the Internet, robots could conceivably answer the most difficult ethical issues in real time.





Such updating and revision is already being done, and not only in software but also in a faster, partly malleable type of hardware known as firmware. For example, Microsoft's controller-free "Kinect" interface is run by dynamically updated firmware. Off-board firmware updates, constantly revised and updated through a live wireless feed to the Internet, allows the devise to recognize each user, and respond appropriately to that person alone using visual cues alone. Although currently intended only for the XBox gaming platform, it appears that Kinect will soon be our main interface that we will use to interact with all computers. The personal computer, for the first time, will be both personal and personable.


Or, maybe not so personal. Who is overseeing the updating of this firmware? Can we trust a single corporation's proprietary feed to be updating the firmware that runs our world? In a time when free access to information is a hot button issue, we cannot afford to leave this issue aside. The release of unauthorized information by the likes of Wikileaks has already provoked two popular revolutions in the Middle East, with many more crowds of unhappy citizens standing in line to be next.




As democracy spreads, and as transparency and freedom of information become more sophisticated, one word will become a byword around the world: praxeology (, the science that informs decisions and action. Ethical choices are made at every level, not just the top. Good leadership is a question of praxeology; the more democratic our world becomes, not only political but economic democracy, and every other kind of democracy, the better our praxeology must be. It is praxeology that decides what course of action machines like Nao the robot will follow. The rules of computer interfaces like Kinect are entirely praxeological in nature, and should be decided by democratic, open means.

Get rid of the Vampire Squids

Saturday, February 12, 2011


After World Peace, What?


By John Taylor; 2011 Feb 12, Mulk 06, 167 BE



After we set up a world government and peace has been made secure and permanent, then what? This is not a question that can be set aside, for its answer will provide the very desire to bring cosmopolitanism into being.


We know intuitively that boundless material growth is physically impossible. The earth's ability to support masses of humans is already being strained beyond capacity. Nonetheless, there are no known limits to how much further we can grow in non-physical ways, that is, intellectually, scientifically, educationally, culturally, organizationally, spiritually and artistically. And surely these higher perfections are more worthy and noble anyway.


It follows that the goal of every cosmopolitan thinker must be to improve each and every human on the face of the earth. And what higher goal than that set up by our spiritual aspiration to become an image of God? It would be absurd to attempt such a thing in any material way, for if anything is inimitable, it has to be God, but we certainly can mirror the high qualities of a loving God in moral, mental and other non-physical ways. The goal of all good government, of whatever kind, is to serve the benefit of the people. This object was established in thought and action thousands of years ago by great Chinese thinkers like Confucius, Mencius, Lo Tzu and others.








But an even higher target is to aim at the perfection of all people under the aspect of eternity. This John Amos Comenius proposed in his ultimate cosmopolitan manifesto:



"We wish ALL MEN to be made perfect IN ALL THINGS that form them into the full image of God, including their dealings with things, with their fellow-men, and with God, who is the fountain of their blessedness. Also, we wish to reform men IN ALL WAYS, and we therefore require a system of universal wisdom, universal religion, and universal politics, embracing the whole of mankind." (Comenius, Panorthosia, Ch. 1, para 10-11, p. 49)



We have learned in our brushes with Plato that the word describing an affinity to divine rule for the benefit of all is wisdom. Wisdom calls forth a sense of proportion, the ability to take the entire picture into account in decisions. It is a kind of expertise, but one that is available to every conscientious person. We are captains of our soul. Unless a ship's captain takes every important factor into account during a journey -- the crew, the weather, dangers from shoals or pirates, the condition of the vessel and its equipment, the navigational problem of finding the destination -- then sudden disaster is much more probable.


Comenius thought that we need an even more universal word than "wise" to describe the sort of leadership that world order requires. The concern that Confucian officialdom demonstrates for the people is the height of wisdom. But what about the whole earth, with its thousands of languages, cultures and diversity nations?




For that, Comenius coined the word "pansophy," or universal wisdom. Pansophy, wisdom born of reflecting upon the Almighty God, transcends normal human limitations. It covers all the commonalities and universals needed for unity in diversity, for oneness to shine over such a vast spectrum of diversity. Pansophy would be our only hope to successfully sail spaceship earth to humanity's destination. Pansophy is the only quality that unites science, politics and religion in a single quest for good.



"Also previous reformers have confined themselves to some particular task and concentrated on the removal of some abuse encountered here or there. In some cases they have lacked the means to obtain their ends, but too often their efforts are a tale of conflict and increasing disunity, not only in politics, but in schools, and most abominably in the church (`for verily the abomination stands there in the holy place.' -Matt 24:15-16). Therefore, in our present situation we desire not simply orthosis or reform but Panorthosia, which is universal. General and full reform of all people, in all things, in all ways." (Comenius, Panorthosia, Ch. 1, para 7-8, p. 49)

Lesley Hazleton: On reading the Koran | Video on

Lesley Hazleton: On reading the Koran | Video on

Lesley Hazleton sat down one day to read the Koran. And what she found -- as a non-Muslim, a self-identified "tourist" in the Islamic holy book -- wasn't what she expected. With serious scholarship and warm humor, Hazleton shares the grace, flexibility and mystery she found, in this myth-debunking talk.

Lesley Hazleton explores the Quran and finds much that is quite different from what is reported in commonly cited accounts.

A psychologist by training and Middle East reporter by experience, British-born Lesley Hazleton has spent the last ten years exploring the vast and often terrifying arena in which politics and religion, past and present, intersect. Her most recent book, After the Prophet: the Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split, was a finalist for the 2010 PEN-USA nonfiction award.

She lived and worked in Jerusalem for thirteen years -- a city where politics and religion are at their most incendiary -- then moved to New York. She came to Seattle to get her pilot's license in 1992, saw the perfect houseboat, and stayed. By 1994, she'd flown away all of her savings, and has never regretted a single cent of it. Now her raft rides low in the water under the weight of research as she works on her next book, The First Muslim, a new look at the life of Muhammad.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Citizen Physicians

Citizen Physicians

2011 Feb 10, Mulk 04, 167 BE; Citizen Physicians

Precis: An ordered state engages citizens in wisdom. Such is the goal of dialectic. A dialectician is an expert in making questions of right, law and ethics the main concern of popular, routine conversations. Dialectics progresses by experimenting with the logic of law. It tries this logic out in words before law informs action.


In the slave owning society of Ancient Athens there were two kinds of doctor, one for slaves and one for free citizens. Slaves had no right to be treated by physicians. Instead, they saw other slaves with experience as aids to trained medical practitioners. Such partly-trained slaves must have acted like field medics, handing out poorly understood remedies in a slapdash manner to all comers. The patients were menials and had no choice but to take the cure and shut up. A physician, by contrast, was expected to get to know his patients personally. Once the ailment was diagnosed, he took the time to explain what was wrong and why a particular therapy was necessary.


Plato compared this to political leaders, especially those who write and apply laws. The legal system, he said, is not therapy for free citizens but remedies for slaves. Its laws are arbitrary, handed down from above, along with a threat of violence for non-compliance. Judges mete out punishment with the cursory attention of a slave medic. Worst of all, one hand is tied behind the judge's back, as it were.


"...none of our legislators would seem ever to have remarked that they rely wholly on one instrument in their work, whereas there are two available, so far as the mass's lack of education will permit, persuasion and compulsion. Authority is never tempered in their lawmaking with persuasion; they work by compulsion unalloyed." (Laws 722c, Collected Dialogues, p. 1312)


There should be long explanations of the laws, which Plato called "preambles," in order to make them palatable to free thinkers. That way, lawmakers would act more like a free citizen's physician preferring persuasion to compulsion, by making laws pleasant and seeing to it that rules and regulations are accepted as enthusiastically as possible.


Comenius agrees, citing a Roman writer who said, "You should know that the most righteous thunderbolts are those which are worshipped even by those whom they have struck." (Seneca: Quaestiones Naturales, ii, 12) But love of laws should also be accompanied by knowledge. Such an imperative was central to the Law of Moses. For example, as a prelude to the ten commandments God ordered first of all that laws be discussed routinely, "when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up." (Deut 6:7, WEB) Society should be unstinting in paying workers well for a job well done, and in distributing credit where credit is due. This liberality, Comenius points out, pervades the Bible. For example, he cites: "Give her of the fruit of her hands; Let her works praise her in the gates." (Proverbs, 31:31, WEB) Comenius also noticed that rewards and honours are routinely meted out for sports heroes. Why not do the same for wisdom? The place to start should be in schools. In a section called "special awards for special merits," Comenius wrote,


"For if a civilised nation like the Greeks considered it worthwhile to award laurel wreaths and other prizes as an incentive to the prowess of their young men competing on the racetrack and practising physical fitness or skill in armed warfare, surely anything of this kind will be suitable in the arena of wisdom!" (Panorthosia, Ch. 22, Para 30, p. 53)


Wisdom can be made more attractive by distributing liberal rewards to all who make wise choices. We therefore should put as many people as possible in a position where they can judge the behaviour of others and distribute rewards for exceptionally good deeds. If we do that, then it would be a society not just of free citizens but also of active, wise physicians.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The Aristocracy of the Wise

Meritocracy and Noocracy


By John Taylor; 2011 Feb 09, Mulk 03, 167 BE





Socrates and Plato envisioned a profession -- or perhaps more exactly a role or phase for existing trades and professions -- that they called a dialectician. Let us dwell for a time on dialectics, conversations directed by an expert, since it is impossible to imagine a Cosmopolis without it.


Dialectics is the main tool of enlightenment, the essential characteristic of a noocracy, or rule of mind. Noocracy, from the Greek "Noos," for intellect or mind, described an “aristocracy of the wise” for Plato, the dominion of the philosopher king. Here wisdom and reason rule over desire and passion. When mind is overruled, the result is dissent and folly,



"It is this dissonance between pleasure and pain and reasoned judgment that I call the worst folly, and also the greatest, since its seat is the commonality of the soul." (Laws, 689b, Collected Writings, p. 1284)



The rule of mind only happens after long struggle. Gradually the soul learns to overrule ignorance and lower drives. A large part of this purification involves verbal interplay. Why? Because that is what mind does. It thinks. By definition, the mind or noos is something that thinks. Plato defined thought itself as a sort of inner conversation. Thought is a,



"dialogue which the soul has with itself about the objects under its consideration ... the soul when it thinks is simply engaging in dialectic with itself in which it asks itself questions and answers them itself, affirms and denies. And when it arrives at something definite, either by a gradual process or a sudden leap, when it affirms one thing consistently and without divided counsel, we call this its judgment. So, in my view, to judge is to make a statement, and a judgment is a statement which is not addressed to another person or spoken aloud, but silently addressed to oneself." (Plato, Theaetetus, 189e-190a)






So powerful was the influence of this term of political philosophy, noocracy, that it was not until the 1950's that somebody coined a somewhat deceptive Latinate equivalent, "meritocracy." Meritocracy caught on quickly, since it was immediately recognizable to a generation of scholars unfamiliar with Ancient Greek.


But something important was lost.


Rule of merit is similar but ultimately not quite the same as rule of mind. Merit is a social condition. Mind is first and foremost an action of the soul. An active, enquiring mind enters independently into dialectic with itself. If it succeeds, it gains pleasure in doing the same with others. Friendship is a product of mind. By engaging in dialectic, the mind does social good, but only incidentally. It often gains approbation from society, but not necessarily.


As Socrates explained in life and demonstrated in death, a dialectician also acts like the gadfly, an annoying insect whose bites goad the large, slow moving, lazy beast that is the state into action. Socrates won no accolades for his life's work; it was only after his sacrifice that his true merit showed itself to most Athenians. It was not until even longer after he was crucified that Jesus Christ's merits were evident to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.

Merit is an award conferred from outside, after the fact. A meritocracy is obsessed with credentials. It tends to be a gerontocracy, since it usually takes a lifetime (at least) for true merit to be recognized and certified. A noocracy, on the other hand, tends to be diverse, since mind is a characteristic of young and old, of men and women, of every language, culture and ethnicity. Meritocracy is conservative, favoring the status quo, whereas a noocracy by nature balances all three leanings, toward the past, present and future, that is, conservatism, liberalism and progressivism.


So, why not forget what noocracy is? Why not just think in terms of meritocracy? Is not one word as good as another? Would not a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Perhaps, but what we are talking about here is the difference between a rose and a leaf of skunk cabbage. Like the latter, merit is a lesser thing, it is not pretty, and much of the time it stinks.





Merit is awarded by strangers and outside groups, who often have mixed motives. Mind seeks out other minds ruled by reason. It glories in interacting, caring not who it is, so long as they think well. Mind is delicate. It requires tranquility, long periods of silence and clarity. A Noocracy, therefore, shies away from impurity, clouds and pollution. It thrives only if there is unity and harmony, in both self and society.


"A community should be at once free, sane, and at amity with itself ... these are the ends a legislator must keep in view in his enactments." (Plato, Collected Dialogues, The Laws, 693b, p. 1282)


Noocracy favors reason and truth for their own sakes. It is not slow and stupid, awarding appearances and passing over those who shun the spotlight. Minds uncovering reality are ecstatic; they seek out harrowing challenges, setting out on the hero's quest to rule over baseness and overcome ignorance, both within and without. At the same time, it is tentative, humble and self-critical. A reasoned mind recognizes, as Plato put it, that "injustice is the offspring of insolence." (Laws, 691c) It therefore abhors all manifestations of prejudice and hypocrisy.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Men in the House

By John Taylor; 2011 Feb 08, Mulk 02, 167 BE





The following I wrote a few years ago and a friend has asked to see it. So I am reposting it, slightly revised. It is my take on one of the most frequently asked questions we get, why no women on the UHJ?


Why, why are only men allowed on the Universal House of Justice? Why, why, are only men obliged to go on pilgrimage in the Baha'i Faith? What is the wisdom of this apparent skew towards the male element?


In August of 2005 I found an article in Time Magazine about a Christian minister in the States who has taken upon himself a personal "mission to the men." He pointed out that over sixty percent of the membership rolls of Protestant churches, and something like eighty or ninety percent of their active membership, are female. In those conservative sects where women clergy were suddenly allowed, the number of female leaders shot up from zero to, again, ninety percent or more in only a few years.


He said that male church members who do turn up complain about the artsy-fartsy services chosen by the gals, singing, dancing and lovey-dovey sentiment. All that good ol' rootin' tootin' hell, damnation and brimstone are a thing of the past. To my surprise, this pastor with the mission to the men negatively compared female-dominated Christianity to Islam, the world's fastest growing religion, which gives a bigger place -- to say the least -- to men.

I cannot say that I found this man of God's approach to attracting males to religion all that interesting. Taken to an extreme, he would be hiring wrestling announcers as preachers and staging mini-football games behind the pulpit to keep the fleeting interest of male congregants from flagging.


Nonetheless, he has a point about men in religion generally. This is driven home every time I attend Feast here in Haldimand. While we have one or two other men who turn up sporadically (depending, I suppose, upon the NHL hockey schedule), usually in a roomful of women the only males are myself, Ron, and my six-year old son, Tomaso. This imbalance is not obvious in communities with a Persian element, since they resemble Muslims in that men tend to be as active, or more, than women. A male exodus, it seems, is characteristically Western.





So, suppose that in setting up ground rules for male involvement in religion Baha'u'llah was not trying to maintain the last bastions of a rotten, patriarchic, male-dominated old order. Was He rather looking to the new Order? Was He pointing a divine finger at the face of men in developed lands, saying:



"Do your duty to God. You have a responsibility not to lose yourselves in freedoms to indulge in wine, women and sports. Do not blow energy on selfish pleasure. You must take a positive role in society, religion, and particularly in family life. Yours must be a partnership with women but also take on a leadership stake in the family. That is why you are the nominal head, so that you will keep your family name going through many generations, at whatever cost to you personally. By inclination men are selfish and altruism comes harder. So fight your inclination to flee family life. Join in not because you are forced to do so or for personal power but because this is the best moral course for you. The mark of male maturity is that ability to plan restrained, consultative initiatives; this is also the best impetus for spiritual progress. The balance of virility of family as an institution depends upon you, and hence of politics and democracy generally."



And what exemplar do you have, men? Well, there is the Master for one. One novel insight came to me reading Myron Phelps’ book, the first ever written in English about `Abdu'l-Baha, called The Master in Akka. It has a mini-history of the Faith not in `Abdu'l-Baha's words but His sister Bahiyyih Khanum's words. She gives a female perspective, but Western men especially should read this eyewitness account in its entirety (I would like to make a video of it, with my daughter Silvie as narrator). Here is what I gleaned from what she said about `Abdu'l-Baha as paterfamilias:


His charitable initiatives did not go unnoticed in family circles. He gave prodigious amounts of money to the poor and indigent at times when the family was by no means prosperous. This, it seems, was especially galling in the female "andarun", mothers, daughters and sisters. I had imagined the Master's "extreme charity" might have provoked grumbling but it was the first time I saw it mentioned in print.


What does this mean?


Our Exemplar was unstinting, even at the price of family prosperity, on behalf of the poor. His leadership was unrelenting, tough, but not -- God forbid! -- in the sense of male oppression. Quite the reverse, this was the reverse, the much harder path of relieving poverty and ending oppression.


So, men, if you want to do your duty, turn all your money and energy to ending poverty and indigence locally and in the world. Turn off the Stupid Bowl and the Sadley Cup for a while, and act, plan, for an end to oppression and tyranny. When they are stamped out, then you can think about a watching rather than playing a sport, but not before.





Bahiyyih Khanum also tells the story of the Master as father. Like most parents in an age before antibiotics, He and the Holy Mother Munirih Khanum underwent the unimaginable trauma of losing five of nine children, most at a young age. Only four offspring survived, all girls. Long story short, tremendous pressure by the believers was brought to bear upon Father and Son to bear a male heir. The Covenant, the Prophetic succession, the future of the Faith itself hung upon primogeniture, the eldest boy taking over leadership. And only girls were making it through childhood.


Surprisingly for many (for me, at least), Baha'u'llah did not stand in the way of a second spouse for His Son, `Abdu'l-Baha; that would have meant more chances for a male heir, and the Kitab-i-Aqdas did not forbid taking on a second wife. According to Bahiyyih Khanum, Baha'u'llah stood back and intentionally did not forbid `Abdu'l-Baha from marrying, saying in effect, "If He wishes He may do so, nothing stands in His way." The Master, having the decision left to Himself alone, interpreted the clause in the Aqdas allowing two wives max as effectively enjoining monogamy since it had stipulated that a second marriage was conditional upon justice, peace and harmony, and that is impossible in a ménage-a-trois.


Why the sidestepping? Why was polygamy not just directly forbidden in the Book? Clearly, there is a lesson here, one especially aimed at men as fathers and heads of families. Our exemplar had His chance, a decision on His shoulders alone, and He made it. It is well known that He had had a personal dislike of privilege and inequality from His earliest days. Though He could have taken a second spouse legally and answered expediency with a chance at a male heir, He freely elected not to and was no doubt upbraided by some of those concerned.


So, now the legal system in the West has swung around to give men a similar choice. We all know that for most men most of the time voluntary responsibility is not a real choice at all. Pick out a ball and chain behind curtain number one, or take free sex without moral strings behind curtain number two. Given that freedom, who can be surprised when pews empty out and sports bleachers and porn websites are packed to the brim? Not surprising then that the indicators of men shirking unpleasant duty are everywhere, from top to bottom.


One example on top is especially hard to ignore right now. Decades after Shoghi Effendi talked about an "age of responsibility," "The Baha'i era is ... the age of individual responsibility." (Shoghi Effendi, Messages to the Indian Subcontinent, p. 118) A certain American president started his administration by paying lip service to a "culture of responsibility," yet he ignored cheap and simple preventive measures that would have averted the flooding of New Orleans. A city that was poor and largely Black, an unpleasant burden ignored by the slacker "father" of the world's wealthiest nation. Meanwhile every time a privileged hand was extended to him, he could not say no, to the extent that the national debt has expanded to the point where there is talk of economic collapse in the world's wealthiest nation.


Male lack of responsibility extends all the way down the totem pole. Now most young men regard higher learning as "uncool," and are staying away from universities in droves. Same way, mounting debt, both personal and national, is putting our future in hock. The next generation will also have to clean up the pollution and greenhouse gases resulting from flagrantly irresponsible decisions made by largely male leaders. This is the reverse of the model of virility and manliness in the cause of doing good that was shown by the Exemplar.


As Baha'is we believe that the only thing that will ever shake us out of our stupor is a crisis. Men of the next generation will pay for this blasé attitude about the way to make a better future for ourselves.



"Nothing but a fiery ordeal, out of which humanity will emerge, chastened and prepared, can succeed in implanting that sense of responsibility which the leaders of a new-born age must arise to shoulder." (Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha'u'llah, p. 46)


We men need a palm to the forehead to suddenly remind us of our responsibilities, to get us to renounce our blind adherence to the cult of elite sports and get us to serve humanity with all our force. What better body can do this than an all-male Universal House of Justice?




"Men in the House, Revisited Again"; written 19 September, 2005; revised June 11, 2006 and Feb 08, 2011