February 9, 2003

· Sociology

Iain J. Coleman points out the difference between the chattering classes and the people who get things done:

This is the grunt-work of politics. It has all the glamour of slashing your finger on a spring-loaded letterbox on a rainy winter’s night, and is as intellectually satisfying as giving up an evening to suffer personal abuse at the hands of strangers can be. But it is necessary. Doing this, you stand a chance of winning: sitting aloof at your keyboard, you can only lose. And knowing you were right all along won’t be much consolation.

Or, as Max Weber put it to a group of students in Munich in 1919, in his lecture on “Politics as a Vocation”:

Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards… [E]ven those who are neither leaders nor heroes must arm themseves with that steadfastness of heart which can brave even the cumbling of all hopes. This is necessary right now, or else men will not be able to attain even what is possible today. Only someone who is confident that he will not be shattered if the world, seen from his point of view, is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer it; someone who can say, in spite of that, “but still!“—- only he has the calling for politics.

Incidentally, Weber had exactly the same opinion about the life of the mind, and gave a companion lecture on “Science as a Vocation” that made this clear:

Hence academic life is a mad hazard. If the young scholar asks for my advice with regard to habilitation [i.e., taking an advanced degree], the responsibility of encouraging him can hardly be borne… one must ask every other man: Do you in all conscience believe that you can stand seeing mediocrity after mediocrity, year after year, climb beyond you, without becoming embittered and without coming to grief? Naturally, one always receives the answer: “Of course, I live only for my ‘vocation’.” Yet, I have found that only a few men could endure this situation without coming to grief.

I’d better get back to work on that article…

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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