Jesters are portrayed as fools but they are clever. They make us laugh and gasp at their cheeky and audacious remarks. Their humour is barbed and aimed at a person or persons in powerful positions.
A jester must have someone to jest about. In court they performed the important function of saying things to the King and Queen that no courtier dare speak.
Their function is to speak truth unto power.
A forceful leader is likely to be surrounded by subordinates who seek favour by telling him what he wants to hear. After a while even very good leaders may become intoxicated by power, lose touch with reality and believe their own views, ideas and actions to the exclusion of all others. Their personality changes and they begin to show signs of hubris.
A jester will serve to ground him and keep him in touch with reality and inform him of what his courtiers really think.
Where are the jesters today?
We no longer have jesters. They have morphed into other things. In modern times some comedians do the job, there are political cartoonists and radio and TV programmes such as ‘Yes, Minister’, ‘Spitting Image’ and ‘Have I got News for You’; there are publications such as ‘Private eye’.
There is an edgy relationship with journalists who want copy for their median and politicians who want to publicise a point. Political leaders want to say their stuff but not be questioned; journalists require answers to questions.
Some powerful people have the wisdom and humility to realise that their positions might lead them to hubris; to believe too much in oneself, to dismiss the opinions and ideas of others and to press for goals regardless of the practicality of them. The wise man has a mentor who functions like a jester but in private.
Who are the mentors today? Jesters had to be perceived as fools in that they represented no threat to the one in power or to his women. Jesters were often eunuchs in the past. Today’s jesters or mentors are private, they do not make fun for the benefit of the people but they enter into a deep and confidential relationship with the mentee.
Mentors are often spouses. Franklyn D Roosevelt benefitted hugely from his wife’s political acumen even when they were no longer living together. He was also helped by his ‘secretary’, Marguerite LeHand, always known as Missy who was politically wise. There was also a more public aide, Harry Hopkins.
Clementine Churchill notably kept Winston on the right tracks when she wrote to him in June 1940; after his ‘Finest Hour’ speech and when he and others expected Britain to be invaded.
Clementine Churchill’s letter to her husband, 27 June 1940
“I hope you will forgive me if I tell you something I feel you ought to know.
One of the men in your entourage (a devoted friend) has been to me and told me that there is a danger of your being generally disliked by your colleagues and subordinates.
I was astounded and upset because in all these years I have been accustomed to all those who have worked with and under your loving care. I said this and was told, “No doubt it’s the strain.”
My darling Winston. I must confess I have noticed a deterioration in your manner; and you are not so kind as you used to be. It is for you to give the Orders…”
Denis counselled Margaret Thatcher and advised her to resign as party leader. She, with typical hubris, ignored his advice and we know what happened a year later.
Some of our current leaders are so lacking in ideas and drive to do anything other than to stay in power that they do not need a mentor. They will serve out their time and go.
What to do about hubris
When a leader suffers from hubris, what can be done? Most organisations arrange for their leaders to serve for a limited time; the president of the USA for up to 8 years (two terms of 4). Our own parliament is fixed a 5 year term but I am not sure how long a leader can go on if re-elected but 10 years is probably too long.
A mentor can be imposed or asked to do the job by the courtiers or politicians. He would be a ‘big beast’ as they call them in politics. Ken Clarke for the Conservative Party and maybe Gordon Brown or Alistair Darling for the Labour Party; I think John Prescott would just make matters worse. These men no longer have ambition for the top job. Such people can speak the unpalatable truths.
Of our leaders and shakers there are some sorely in need of a jester. For two I would nominate Farage and Branson. Who would you nominate?