Monday, June 11, 2007
Chapter 3: A Bad Day in Vilka, Part 2
Nearly everyone had left for the day when the Prince returned from his meeting. The Adjutant waited outside his office. Pleasantries were exchanged, awkwardly on the Adjutant's part, and with a perceptible exhaustion on the Prince's part.
"Adjutant," said the Prince. "I trust you are aware of the small furor over spelling."
"Yes, Prince, I heard of it this afternoon, after I returned from resolving some issues with the minstrels."
"What is your view? How shall we avoid such troubles in the future?"
"Prince, I do not consider it a problem."
"Poor spelling in official proclamations is not a problem? Does it not make us look primitive and inept? Especially when it comes from the Minister of Communication?"
"No, Prince, I do not think it does."
"Prince, this is not a large city. It is a small city. No one expects quality from a small city. At least -- and I say this with all due respect -- one does not reasonably expect it. It cannot be enforced, and it probably cannot be much encouraged, either, without damaging morale."
"In your view, does this principle of avoiding quality apply more generally, or is it specific to spelling?"
"More generally, I should think. How can one expect quality from a small city?"
"How, indeed? Tell me, have you ever lived and worked in a large city, Adjutant?"
"No, Prince. I have rarely even crossed our borders. I have never lusted to wander abroad, for I am quite content in Vilka."
"Will there be anything else, Prince?" Perhaps fearing a discussion of the minstrels, the Adjutant seemed eager to take his leave.
"Yes, there will, but not today. Thank you, Adjutant. Go home."
The Vicar of Vilka
The Prince sat at his desk, eyes closed, contemplating the the audiences of the day. He was tired but not sleepy. After some time, he shook his head, opened his eyes, and looked around the room. He started slightly upon seeing an aging but impressive man standing just inside the office door.
"Vicar," said the Prince, "how long have you been standing there?"
"My friend, I cannot tell. I fear I would embarrass you."
"Long enough, then. Please sit. May I pour you a drink?"
"No, Prince, but I will pour us both drinks." From the folds of his cloak he produced a bottle of dark purple liquid.
"Wonderful." The Philosopher-Prince managed a wan smile. "What do you bring today?"
"A favorite, Prince. This blend is mostly mulberry, with a bit of pomegranate and raspberry mixed in, just to puzzle the palate."
"I don't suppose there is any alcohol in it."
"Never, Prince, inasmuch as you do not take alcohol, and neither do I. Has it been a bad day?"
"It has been a bad day."
"Cheers." He lifted his glass.
"Indeed," said the Prince, lifting his. They drank for a moments in tired silence.
"Vicar," said the Prince, "you have many parishoners serving in responsibilities in the Church, small and great. What do you do when they are incompetent? I do not mean merely when they make mistakes, but when they are chronically and complacently incompetent?"
"Well, Prince, I can hardly banish them, since their work in the Church is supposed to help them to grow, and they are the only parishoners I have. But I try to move them gracefully to responsibilities they can handle, since their work is also necessary for the Church to function. Regrettably, I don't have enough very small roles for all the people who will handle nothing more, and I don't have enough truly able people for the larger roles."
"Is this situation particularly aggravated in small cities, as opposed to large, do you think?"
"Alas, Prince, its severity here in Vilka is entirely familiar to me from my previous service in the City by the Lake."
"So you actually keep them in roles for which they are unsuited, in the hope that they will grow into them?"
"I prefer to find roles for which they are suited. There are opportunities enough for growth that way."
"But you do retain them often?"
"Yes. To my regular frustration, I often keep them because I have no one better to replace them."
"And if you could find people adequate to those larger roles?"
"I would immediately make places for them in those larger roles."
"And you have resigned yourself to the best your people can do?"
"In truth, my Prince, it is not the best they can do that matters. I could easily resign myself to that. What matters is the best they will do. That is far different. I have not succeeded in embracing that, nor do I think I every shall."
"I suppose I have no right to expect things to be better for me in ruling the City than they are for you in ruling the Church."
"Prince, I think you must insist on better. Much better."
"Indeed? How can this be? The Church is the Church. The Church is divine. The Church is the best we can do. I merely rule a city, and not a large one."
"Prince, I am not paying those inadequate parishoners for their lackadaisical efforts. You are paying your staff, or, rather, the taxpayers are. It is your duty to the taxpayers, of which I am one, to see that the City government runs as competently, effectively, and economically as reasonably possible. If someone is unsuited to his role, it is not for you to indulge him. You must find someone to do that work faithfully and well, else it will not be done faithfully or well. You and the people will thus be ill served, and the people will therefore be ill served by you. And knowing you, my friend, if you must endure hopeless mediocrity, or, still worse, systematically apologize for and defend it, you yourself will quickly wear away."
"I suppose what you say must be true. But it is very difficult."
"It is difficult indeed."
"Would it be foolish to promote a mere clerk to Adjutant?"
"I suppose that would depend on the clerk. But, Prince . . ."
"Your current Adjutant was promoted from Clerk. Deputy Assistant Associate Underclerk, or some such absurd title. This suggests caution."
"I see. And what of the principles of our religion? What of kindness, charity, patience? Are these not to be exercised in governing?"
"Oh, endlessly, Prince. But will you be kind to the person who now poorly serves the people, or to the people who are now poorly served, but could be better served by someone else? Will your charity with other people's money overwhelm your wisdom and judgment? Will you be patient with the diligent and able, when they err, or will you be patient with the mediocre and unmotivated, when they scarcely even try?"
"Vicar, you alarm me."
"And I am not finished. Tell me, is it even charity to act charitably with money taken from others under penalty of law? Is it kind to retain someone in a position to which they are not remotely adequate, or to find them something else, something at which they can make good in public service? And where -- forgive me, my friend -- is the line between patience and utter, hapless contentment with mediocrity?"
"But is not mediocrity our lot in this mortal coil? Is it not vanity to think one has excelled beyond it, or even to aspire to escape it?"
"Mediocrity sees aspiration as ambition and excellence as vanity, to be sure, Prince. But if there is even a spark of the divine in us, and there is, then excellence is our proper lot, and mediocrity merely a wilderness we must pass through on our way to higher things. Mediocrity is a temptation we must resist, else all our faith and fondest hopes be vain."
"You speak well," said the Prince. "But my mind is too far gone today to ponder such weighty things. They call me the Philosopher-Prince, but I am the Prince, and you are the philosopher."
"Mine is the the luxury of philosophizing in words, yours the necessity of philosophizing in deeds, which is an order of magnitude more difficult."
"We may hope that someday the two philosophies will merge."
"Indeed. Meanwhile, my friend, I have good news. My son announced at luncheon that he has killed something, is cooking it, and proposes to feed it to me and my wife this evening. He is an able chef. There is plenty, and he bids us bring a guest. Your wife is away, and you will otherwise eat some foul gruel, I should think. Come with us. You will honor him and his house, delight the Vicar's wife and her husband, and cheer yourself."
"I thank you, Vicar, but --"
"No buts, my friend. We shall leave immediately. You will serve the City well by relaxing this evening."
To be continued.
Copyright 2007 by David Rodeback.