Symbols of power & the duties of leadership

Sea Prince

When godlilies sprouted in the general’s steps, his soldiers begged him to take up the golden scepter and steal the throne. But Jiren was born a sea-prince and watched his father the agonarch struggle to meet the needs of his people.

Not even the gods could convince him to rule.


ANALYSIS

In general, I hate being in charge of things. This does not, of course, prevent people from trying to put me in charge of things.

When I was in elementary school, the teacher in charge of the "safety" program broke the rules to make me Safety Captain twice. The program was basically set up so that older kids were given orange sashes and allowed to help the adults keep the younger kids from running around and hurting themselves. As Captain, I was also given a little silver star to go with the sash and allowed to do cool stuff like guard the basketball court while somebody fetched an adult to get rid of the giant snapping turtle that had wandered in. The star was a symbol of my "authority" — the turtle was pretty cool though.

From a historical perspective, the first symbol of authority and power I'm aware of is the mace. Unlike axes or knives, maces have a single purpose: cracking heads. The shift to maces, single-purpose weapons, is therefore indicative of a shift to the glorification of raiding and war and the creation of a dedicated warrior class. Scepters are often described as ceremonial “staffs” or “wands” but if you actually look at one, they’re basically stylized maces made out of precious materials.

The development of maces probably mirrors that of the chariot, actually. Matched teams of trained horses are not only expensive, they require a great deal of skill to control, especially when you consider that single-rider chariots were controlled with the hips while the hands were busy with ranged weapons like javelins or bows. Feats of athleticism like that require a lot of training and wealth, which only happens when excess free time and resources are concentrated into particular hands. Food surplus is typically controlled by elites, and elites often but not always get that status through military prowess.

The example of this most American schoolchildren learn about is feudalism. This is probably an oversimplification, but to my mind, the development of the knightly class in the Middle Ages was because the most effective warfare tactics at that time required specialized training and gear; heavy armor, trained horses from particular breeding lines, and years of training in weapons and tactics. It was a far cry from the citizen-armies of Greece and Rome, and the impact of that difference shows in the type of government each region developed: democratic governments seem to be more likely in places where military might is not concentrated in the hands of elites.

I’m not trying to say the fall of European monarchies was inevitable from the moment the rifle was invented or anything, that would be an overly bold claim, but I certainly have theories about how the shift in modern warfare away from boots on the ground in trenches and jungles toward white collar folks controlling drones and cyber tools is a bellwether for growth of oligarchy.

But leadership is about more than fighting and war. Elites have other duties: they are often responsible for feeding their people in times of famine, ensuring justice and internal social stability, and handling complex logistics like alliances and infrastructure.

Jiren is an effective war leader, a powerful fighter and presumably a skilled tactician, but he is not emotionally prepared to take up the other duties of leadership, not after seeing how hard it was on his father.

Whether he is acting as a noble or a coward in that choice is for the reader to decide.

Further Reading

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