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Be a Guardian

by Bill Meacham on August 16th, 2011

What if you were a guardian and protector of mankind? Not a guardian of a particular city-state or nation, as Plato proposed in The Republic, but of all humanity, along the lines of a Buddhist Bodhisattva. What would your ethics and morals be? What kinds of virtues would you cultivate?

Chief among them, of course, would be compassion, a sense of protectiveness toward all humans. You would look for opportunities to relieve suffering, to give aid to those in need, to protect the helpless, shelter the homeless, feed the hungry and so forth. You would care, a lot.

You would have a strong sense of loyalty to your fellow guardians. You would feel a camaraderie with them, perhaps even love, and an almost instinctive urge to come to their aid, no matter what it took, if they were in trouble or simply needed help.

You would certainly need to develop and foster courage. Until everyone gains a sense of compassion, there will be some who seek to prey on others, to do harm to others for their own gain. As many of these villains are dangerous, you would need courage to stand up against them. Depending on the situation, you might need physical strength and skill, but in all cases you would need to be able to overcome your own fear and trepidation to do what is needful.

And you would need to be skillful at keen observation. You would need to notice and pay attention both to details and broad patterns so you could figure out what the needful is in any given situation.

You would need a sense of confidence in your own abilities, a mastery of your own particular gifts and talents, that would enable you to act quickly and decisively.

You would probably have a strong sense of duty, which would lead you to do the right thing even when it is inconvenient, distasteful or even abhorrent. Despite your inclination not to, you would do it anyway. A sense of duty is related to courage, but is not the same. Courage enables you to do the needful in spite of your fear. A sense of duty enables you to do it when you would rather not, regardless of whether or not there is any danger. Another way of saying this is that you would have a sense of commitment to your calling.

If you had a strong sense of duty, you probably would also have a deep respect for authority, especially if you and your fellow guardians were organized hierarchically. After all, how would you know what to do if concerted action were needed? How would you decide what part you should play? Following orders from trusted superiors would provide the answers.

But how would you know that your superiors could be trusted? There is a famous Latin phrase, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Translated literally, it means “Who will guard the guards themselves?” or “Who will watch the watchmen?” Presumably guardians of mankind would have to have some power of enforcement. But power can corrupt; and well-intentioned, dutiful subordinates can cause great destruction when directed toward malicious ends, as atrocities such as the extermination of Jews in Germany and the killing of innocent civilians in many wars before and since attest.

So respect for authority is not enough. A guardian of mankind would have to have discernment, the ability to recognize and understand what is truly protective, what is truly beneficial, in any given situation. And how would he or she know that? Typically there are two ways to judge an action, by something intrinsic to the act itself and by virtue of its consequences. Intrinsically, a good action would feel right, appropriate, fitting, or in harmony. When making snap judgements in the heat of the moment, we rely on such intuitions of rightness. But feelings can mislead. No doubt both Hutus and Tutsis felt a glow of righteousness when each slaughtered the other in the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

True discernment requires attention to the consequences of one’s actions. You would need to act for the greatest good (as best you could foresee), whether or not the authorities endorsed your action. To do that you would need courage and a sense of duty to a higher calling.

So to be a guardian of humanity you would need compassion, loyalty, courage, confidence and discernment, as well as a sense of commitment to your mission. Having these virtues, and acting on them consistently, you would probably feel pretty good about yourself. You would have a sense of fulfillment, of well-being.

That would be good way to live. Perhaps we should all regard ourselves as guardians and protectors of humanity, and band together with others who feel the same way. We would all live richer lives, and the world would be a better place.



(These musings are inspired – or, if that is too grandiose, provoked – by certain fictional heroes in the mystery and crime thriller genres such as Jack Reacher in novels by Lee Childs and Elvis Cole and Joe Pike in novels by Robert Crais. A good example is Crais’ The First Rule.)

Crais, Robert. The First Rule. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2010.

Wikipedia. “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” Online publication, URL = as of 15 August 2011.

From → Philosophy

  1. Larry Yogman permalink

    You may be trying to combine too many incompatible virtues in one system of personal ethics. When I first read Systems of Survival, I was startled by the idea that a healthy civilization may require different people to have different ethical systems. But I’ve come to favor the idea more and more over time. Your guardian has a lot of moderation – Jacob’s guardian is stronger, more consistent, and less balanced – but is part of a larger society that is balanced:

    • Bill permalink

      Thanks, Larry. I read Jacobs a while ago; perhaps I should revisit it. Certainly I am using “Guardian” in a different, perhaps more inclusive, sense than she is. I was thinking of a personal orientation to life more than a societal role.

  2. Stephen Fretwell permalink

    Philosophically, the most foundational virtue is the courage to face the truth about oneself, and the roots of the evil against which one is guarding the weak. “The unexamined life…” and so on. No matter where one looks at or for the foundations of “loving wisdom,” one finds the dangers of hubris and self deception potentially undermining any and all “good intentions.” But, to balance this high cost is an ever-gtowing realization of what you so clearly remind us: if we do nothing, evil triumphs, mostly in the lives of our “neighbors.” If we stand watch, we save these from great harm.

    It’s a tough job, but how can we hope for a clear conscience if we do not do it?

  3. Steve permalink

    Well done, Bill, as ever. My concern is that throughout history so many of those who have assumed the role of “guardian” have, as Lord Acton so astutely observed, become corrupted by the absolute power entrusted to them and have turned on the people who entrusted them with this power.
    There is no doubt that democracy is a messy and all too often inefficient way to run a railroad, so to speak, but it does have the virtue of making it somewhat difficult for guardians to morph into despots.


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