The Story

Long ago and far away, there was a mighty king. He was known far and wide for his cruelty, and took pride in his reputation. Even his name inspired terror, and people would speak of him only in whispers. Everyone viewed him with fear.

Then one day, his spies brought him news of an old man who had been heard saying that the king had no more power than any other man. Enraged, he ordered that this person be brought before him.

When his guards dragged the man before the throne, the king made him an offer.

“I possess more power than anyone before me. I send armies with a gesture. Cities can be blotted out at my word. The lives of everyone in my kingdom are subject to my least whim, and all the world lies at my feet. But I am not without mercy. Acknowledge my glory, and publicly recant your claim that I have no more power than any other man, and I will permit you to live. You may have some time to consider.”

Now, it was a warm day, and the windows of the palace stood open. A fly had entered through them and flew buzzing through the room. The old man stood for a while as though in thought, then spoke.

“O King, I find that I cannot concentrate because of the buzzing of that fly. Would you please command it to land on my finger and remain there until I have reached a decision?”

The king looked at the man in silence for a long time, then let him go in peace.

adapted from an Armenian folk tale

I no longer remember the name of this story, nor do I recall all its details. But the essence of it has never left me.

On occasion, I have read or heard something which caused my understanding of the world to fundamentally change. Sometimes it was because of a thing utterly new to my experience; sometimes, it caused unrelated thoughts floating through my mind to solidify and crystallize into a perspective I had not previously taken.

That folk tale, found in a children’s book on a low shelf in the back of a small and unassuming library, changed forever my understanding of power.

Consider:

The king had no power over the man’s choices. At most, he could arrange the world so that the consequences of choosing against his preferences would be unpleasant. But what power did the king have to do so? If the king had called in a guard and told him to execute the man, how could he compel obedience if the guard refused? By threatening the guard’s life? Many, many people would obey the king’s orders, but at the heart of things the king had power only because those people granted him power. The king had no inherent ability to make anyone obey – man or fly. Deprived of people who chose to follow his commands, the king would have only ability to remake the world that any other person might have.

The king could kill, or have others kill for him. But he did not have the ability to compel even a fly to choose against its nature. He could kill the old man, but he could not make him choose one way or another.

As a child, I never understood the people who said “government does not rule without the consent of the governed”, because they always said it as a position or an ideal They didn’t see it as a simple, self-evident truth:

There is no power in the universe capable of overriding our own self-will.

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4 Responses to “The Story”

  1. I think more along the lines of Oppenheimer. The origin of the State is in conquest. The leader doesn’t have the power by himself to compel his band, but he doesn’t have to because they are his band and are more rulers than ruled. Over time power becomes less personalized and belongs to an organizational structure. But the power to alter incentives is power all the same, so the king really was more powerful than an ordinary man. If nobody accepted Warren Buffet’s money, he wouldn’t be that much richer than others either.

  2. […] has somewhat related thoughts on power resting on voluntary obedience here. […]

  3. The king could have reasonably replied: “f. I suppose you could argue about the ‘world at my feet’ business, but, hey, that’s basically a metaphor. And yeah, if no one chose to obey me, I’d be fucked, but they do chose to obey me, and why isn’t that legitimately a result of my efforts and an aspect of my glory? Do you honestly think I was saying that I conquer nations and defeat whole armies by myself? I’m not claiming to be God, Who will be judging both you and me in good time, I expect. I never claimed to have infinite power, or to be able to command flies, which no one can do. I simply claimed I had more power than anyone else, which I will now demonstrate by having your head chopped off. Oh, good, here’s the guy with the axe. See ya, wouldn’t want to be ya!”

    I basically have the Nabokovian view of political power as contemptible and base, but it’s pointless to criticize kings for making claims that they don’t make, as this person seems to be doing in this folktale. On the other hand, the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century do seem to make these kinds of claims of power over fact that no traditional authoritarian king or emperor would dare make (unless recogniseably insane). However, the twentieth century response to the man would be: “If you do not see that that fly is at all times under my command, you are by definition a kulak/evil landlord/Jew/enemy of the people/reactionary. You conceal the fact that they fly has landed on your finger as part of your wrecking scheme.”

    • “I simply claimed I had more power than anyone else, which I will now demonstrate by having your head chopped off.”

      Except that everyone else has that power too.

      My impression is that people in the distant past were in fact generally saner than people are today; they may have been a superstitious and irrational lot, but their beliefs were simple and straightforwardly held. There may be a lot more vicious memes kicking around nowadays.

      (I recognize it’s difficult to quantify qualities such as ‘sanity’, and I can’t rigorously defend my perceptions in any objective way… but, upon reading how unprepared the ancients in Rome were to deal with Christianity, I do wonder.)

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