The Regulatory Policy Institute Research Group

Old spectacles for myopic governments: monasteries and speculae

Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for miseries and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.”  (Blaise Pascal)

Narrowness of vision pervades government economic policies. Selective myopia is a common variant of it, often motivated by convenience: don’t look at things you don’t want to see, ignore them”.  The historian Barbara Tuchman described this succinctly as ‘wooden headedness’, a conscious act of not allowing oneself to be deflected by observable facts.  ‘Never mind the trade-offs, feel the aspirations’ might be the associated sentiment.

Temporal myopia is another variant, often linked to distractions that have a sense of immediacy. The mind is drawn to them, to the neglect of considerations of things that might have much larger consequences in the longer-term, which remain unforeseen (though potentially foreseeable).  

Wilful or otherwise, narrowness of vision fails to illuminate the economic returns available from broader, longer-term strategic insight, while simultaneously eclipsing a range of emerging risks and tipping points. A notable, relatively recent example was the conduct of banking and financial supervision ahead of the 2008 crash. Recognition of inability to join the dots was a key part of the confessional letter sent to the Queen by a group of Fellows of the British Academy in response to a (rather good) question of Hers when visiting the LSE in the post-crash period: ‘Did nobody see the credit crunch coming?’

Our previous Insights blog, The insolence of office, noted the linkage between distraction and a dysfunctional division of labour in government. It is on distraction we now focus, drawing attention to two distinct, but related, institutions of old that might aid thinking about the correction of vision problems. The thoughts are motivated by a question sometimes raised in the teaching of maths:  have you seen a problem like this before?  While an affirmative answer does not imply the old solution will be appropriate, the past experience can be a source of insights into how to go about tackling the new challenge.

So, the two institutional forms we put on the table for consideration, which may initially surprise, are the monastery and the Roman specula (watchtower).  Each served high-level purposes/functions within society, broadly summarised as ‘promoting sustained attention’ to a particular challenge. The institutional arrangements served to reduce the exposure of monks or Roman guards to the immediate, distractions of everyday life, keeping minds focused on matters judged to be highly consequential for the wellbeing of a wider society. 

In the case of the case of the monastery the method used to achieve the purpose was stringent physical separation or isolation, on a 24/7 basis (distractions come by night too):  islands like Iona and Lindisfarne were near ideal sites.  

The wider societal interest in these institutions is perhaps well illustrated by Bede’s story of King Edwin of Northumbria’s likening of a human life to the flight of a bird through an Anglo-Saxon mead hall, from darkness into light (briefly) and back into darkness. ‘Anything that might cast a little light on the darkness would be worth knowing’ said Edwin, ‘let this new thinking (Christianity) be welcomed’. Later, at the newly established Northumbrian monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow, Bede calibrated time and tides, linking the latter in quantitatively precise ways to movements of the moon – useful practical knowledge.

The basic idea of separation/isolation to help develop what can be called a ‘culture of inquiry’ is not restricted to religious establishments.  Plato’s Academy, located outside the city walls of Athens, thereby offering less exposure to distractions within those walls, is an earlier example.  The influence of the Academy (a small thing in itself) on European thought has been enormous.

In contrast, speculae formed part of the architecture of a Roman fort or city, so the physical separation was of a lesser degree than for monasteries. They did, though, have a very specific function within a more elaborate nexus. By construction, these relatively small pieces of infrastructure ensured that attention was paid to things invisible and unknown at ground level within the main fort/city circumference. Out in that unknown, potentially existential risks and threats, might lie unnoticed.

The ‘higher and wider’ perspective afforded by the speculae provided a unique standpoint for the perceptions of the guards on duty and their full value depended on more than stone turrets and sharp-eyes. The information gleaned from horizon scanning was reported back ‘down’ to the centurion in charge at ground level, who controlled the overall defence network. In so doing, things that would otherwise remain undetected were brought into a wider group consciousness for broader consideration and synthesis.

The take-away points from these examples are perhaps simply that (a) we have seen practical institutional ‘solutions’ to narrowness of vision problems before and can learn from them (the separateness of monasteries, the height/length and width of vision of the speculae), and (b) development of appropriate institutional architectures today might help reduce the likelihood that Her Majesty’s question will need to be asked again.  

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