The Power of Seats

I have always appreciated a particular metonymy used frequently by Vergil. His hero Aeneas seeks the sedes, or seats, of the glorious Roman state he is destined to found. Aeneas’ wandering after the fall of Troy will be redeemed when he finally finds a place to sit down.

For the ancients, sitting was the highest expression of ruling. Phidias’ statue of Zeus at Olympia depicted the king of the gods doing nothing at all but sitting upon his throne. Vergil’s sedes are quiet, free from demonstration and provocation. The seated posture also contains a powerfully implicit threat — you will regret making me get up, if you should be so foolish.

Conversely, negative examples of leadership in antiquity emphasize the active principle. Etymologically, a demagogue drives the demos, the people. A bad leader pushes the people around as if they were a flock of sheep, prodding them forward and arousing their passions. By the time the king has gotten up to incite the people, he has already lost the serene authority by which he could truly bring them under his command.

Statue of Zeus at Olympia
Artist’s reproduction of the statue of Zeus at Olympia, 1815

In this literal sense, almost everybody in Western society today is either a demagogue or an aspiring demagogue. The middle manager of a retail chain is not supposed to simply sit and let things happen, but inspire an unnatural enthusiasm in employees. Political leaders aren’t supposed to establish and defend stable institutions, but constantly crusade against any number of problems. When these crusades fail, the failure only opens up more opportunities for demagogues to incite a populus still further perturbed. The tech industry hails the charismatic spirit of overlapping “start-ups”, but doesn’t care to consider the long-term consequences of digital overreach. If you feel exhausted by the state of public affairs, it is probably because you have many “leaders” — demagogues —  but few custodians.

If the stress of all this activity is too much for you, you can buy yourself a fidget spinner, and keep your hands active while every other thread of your life blows around helplessly, constantly provoked by authorities who can never simply sit around in authority.

But in some sense these authorities have no choice, as in a modern meritocracy they need to constantly *prove* their relevance, even when this proof destroys the proper posture of their position. A boss may manipulate us, but this is expected, as we manipulate them back, each trying to drive the other around, hoping prove our own worth. Pushing other people into doing things they have no real interest in doing is the basic currency of organizational psychology, which seeks to provide motivations for an endless series of ad hoc projects, campaigns, and initiatives. Burnout, now common to the adolescent as well as the middle-aged, exposes the shadow side of our universal demagoguery. 

Rule from the seat endured through the medieval period in the tradition of kingly throne, but the arrival of the modern era and the Protestant work ethic has largely buried this ancient wisdom. Examples of ruling from the seat in modernity are few and somewhat dubious. The recurring motif of the chair in the Godfather trilogy provides one ready example, and the Vatican’s highest pronouncements still come ex cathedra, “from the chair”. While this wisdom has not been lost outside of the Protestant world, the Mafia and the Catholic Church are also not institutions ready to provide a liberal articulation of the power of the seat in the 21st century.

Perhaps two American presidents provide useful, if imperfect, examples. Abraham Lincoln was immortalized in the Lincoln Memorial. seated above the National Mall in a manner explicitly recalling the Zeus of antiquity, looking down in seated discrimination. If Lincoln had been portrayed in fervent advocacy, shouting from the rooftops, the statue would have absolutely no symbolic power. The moment of action is common to all, but only some retain their power while seated. They are competent to judge the demonstrations below. Likewise, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, stricken with polio, orchestrated the most active presidency in history from a wheelchair. Many others were ready to stand and work if only they could be affirmed by the presence of one sitting before them.

Lincoln Memorial at night

I would be curious to see how people might respond to such a management attitude today. Even though rule from the chair would alleviate much of the micro-management and mission creep of the modern workplace, I fear that many would resist this style as authoritarian. So long as everybody is standing and whipping each other into a frenzy together, our egalitarian instincts are satisfied, and we tolerate endless manipulations at the hands of demagogues. A manager who took a seat and heeded only fundamental concerns would likely be seen as a tyrant even as their subordinates enjoyed greater freedom.

Regular campaigns of improvement have left us supine and paralyzed. As the ancients knew, true power lies in a dignified seat. It is our challenge to discover how to translate this ancient sense of authority into a modern framework of personal rights and freedoms. 

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