By CHRISTOPHER LANDRUM.
So you hear people talking how miserable a King must be; and yet they all wish to be in his place.
………………— Samuel Johnson1
IN YOUNGER DAYS, mother would often warn brother and me how the biblical children of Bethel were eaten by bears after they mocked the prophet Elisha for his baldness. Perhaps I didn’t listen well enough, because eventually, at about age sixteen, it came to pass that my crown began to thin. Soon enough I looked tonsured and saintly. A few years later my frontal hairline began to recede. The opposite sequence befell my brother. He lost it in the front first, then in the back.
So, understandably, I couldn’t help but reflect on Prince William’s recent tidying of the hedges around his ears. Nor could I help contrasting his haircut to Donald Trump’s shorn mane.
I even felt a charming sense of novelty upon learning about the Prince’s new look. Being only ten months older than him, I had certainly sympathized with him and his brother while watching a nation mourn their mother. I’ve also always found the last letter of Charles I to his son, written on the eve of the father’s regicide, to be quite moving. But only the recent headlines about haircuts were enough to cue my conscious to ponder what it is like “to be the Prince.” For as an American, I don’t believe I’ve ever empathized on an intimate level with any member of the royal family. Until now.
Now there is nothing profound in the remark that novelty is one of the pleasures of travel. But, while planning a first trip to Ireland last winter, I read so much about its history and literature that I became overwhelmed by its culture and controversies. Eventually I had to tell myself: “If you had total information about Éire and Northern Ireland, there would be no need to visit. For nothing there would be surprising. Nothing would be novel.” Yes, with perfect knowledge of the place, I would be able, even from far away Texas, to sympathize with Celts and Saxons, Loyalists and Republicans, refugees and permanent residents. But had I kept my distance and never visited them, that sympathy would’ve remained superficial. Moreover, without having experienced the island and encountering its people face to face, it would’ve been difficult to empathize on a personal level. To have opted out of visiting would’ve left few legitimate ways for me to “put myself in their shoes” the way I now can with the U.K.’s future king.
IN A DISCUSSION of cognitive types that follows Oliver Sacks’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985), Umberto Eco once explained how he grew a beard for twenty years, then shaved it, and later became intrigued how certain acquaintances recognized him immediately, while others were slightly hesitant toward his new face. This is because our minds force new shapes to fit old molds, particularly when it comes to perceiving human faces. The Nobel economist Daniel Kahneman, following Philip Rosenzweig’s lead, calls this mental sequence of adjusting older perceptions to understand newer ones part of the halo effect. As Wired magazine’s founding editor Kevin Kelly puts it: “We tend to see new things from the frame of the old. We extend our current perspective to the future, which in fact distorts the new to fit into what we already know.” Even a Yankee like myself can admit that, though the distortion may be benign––nay, even beneficial––Britain’s royals, whether young or old, tend to confer a halo effect onto most of their observers.2
Yet, not only do our minds squeeze square new pegs into round old holes, but as Machiavelli has observed, humans tend to need the new to realize the old:
The fear in losing generates in him the same wishes that are in those who desire to acquire; for it does not appear to men that they possess securely what a man has unless he acquires something else new.
Two centuries after Machiavelli, the nonconformist minister Henry Grove similarly observed: “this Fondness for Novelty … makes us out of Conceit with all we already have.” Applying their words to the topic at hand, we can say that once an individual begins the new experience of balding, that person tends, no pun intended, “to cut their losses.” Most grow jealous to keep, and sometimes attempt to cultivate, whatever hair they still have left. But there are different manners in which that can be achieved, and I know of no greater contrast in manners on this matter than that of my nation’s president and your kingdom’s prince.3
IF THE OLDER Dr. Johnson were a terrific arguer, it was because he had tempered the tyrannical style of banter used in his younger days. “When I was a boy,” Johnson recalled, “I used always to choose the wrong side of a debate, because most ingenious things, that is to say, most new things, could be said upon it.” This is probably why Johnson later praised a passage from Goldsmith: “When I was a young man, being anxious to distinguish myself, I was perpetually starting new propositions. But I soon gave this over; for, I found that generally what was new was false.” Goldsmith’s words compare well beside another of his friend Johnson’s observations: “what is new is opposed, because most are unwilling to be taught.” No one, however, appears to oppose the current Prince’s recent hairstyle choice.4
Machiavelli writes that legitimate governance, by either a prince or a republic, tends to accomplish new things for their people. This is because illegitimate governance is so common that its opposite always feels quite remarkable. But these new things, in order to be effective for the people, must resemble the previous things––even if their resemblance is completely contrived. For it is only the tyrant who tries to make everything appear so new that nothing resembles the old. In this weird way, the tyrant attempts to make whatever is new appear ex nihilo––an absurdity on par with Johnson purposefully arguing for the wrong side in a debate, or a president daring to claim he coined the phrase “prime the pump.”5
Yes, the Prince has a new look. Yet, whatever is new is, at least according to Machiavelli, accidental. Accidents, like the genetics that bequeath one with baldness, are but random events. But, as the English anthropologist Gregory Bateson once pointed out, “without the random, there can be nothing new.” God save the new.6
Christopher Landrum’s work has appeared previously in The Fortnightly Review as well as Real Clear News of Chicago. He lives in Austin, Texas and writes about books at bookbread.com.
- Boswell, Life of Johnson, 20 July 1763, ætat 54.
- Eco, Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition, trans. Alastair McEwen (New York: Harcourt, 1997), 205–10; Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), 82–85; Kelly, The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future (New York: Penguin, 2016) 14; Rosenzweig, The Halo Effect: and the Eight other Business Delusions that Deceive Managers (New York: Free Press, 2007).
- Grove, Spectator No. 626 – 29 November 1714. See also Boswell, Life of Johnson, 10 April 1776, ætat 67; Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, trans. Harvey C. Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov, (University of Chicago Press, 1996) I, v, p. 19 and III, xxi, p. 261. See also The Prince, ch. VI.
- Boswell, Life of Johnson, 20 July 1763, ætat 54 and 16 March 1779, ætat 70; Johnson, Rambler No. 02 – 24 March 1750.p
- “Transcript: Interview with Donald Trump,” The Economist 11 May 2017; Machiavelli, Discourses, I, xxv, p. 61; see also III, xiv, pp. 251–52; The Prince, ch. XXIV.
- Quoting Bateson, Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity (New York: Dutton, 1979), 147, but see also his Steps to an Ecology of Mind (University of Chicago Press, 1972, 2000) 255; Machiavelli, Discourses, III, xiv, p. 251.