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047 - On Bosses And Underlings - Moral Letters for Modern Times

It betrays real cruelty to knowingly treat another as beneath you simply because they serve you. But to do so out of ignorance of their inherent worth is an even worse offense to your own worth.
Path and hut in Swiss alps - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

I am pleased to observe that you behave the same no matter the company you are with. You can tell much about a person by how they treat those around them. “That’s just an employee,” your colleagues will say. Are we not all employed in one pursuit or another? “Servant!” Yes, and do you not also serve many masters? “Stranger!” No, they are but one we haven’t met yet. Reflect how often we would treat worse those whom we know nothing about, who have done us no harm, over those we know best and who have surely given us cause for complaint.

I wrote you that your social class is no bar to becoming a philosopher. See On Class And Philosophy. Why then does achieving an elevated status serve for so many as a barrier to treating people well? We all know the executive who scurries from the door of their chauffeured limousine to the express elevator waiting to whisk them to the top floor of their building. A selection of powerful second-in-commands is on hand to fill their ears with affirmations before they adjourn to the executive dining room to fill their bellies with delicacies. And should they need relief after their indulgence, they retire to their private bathrooms where they discreetly conduct another sort of business.

They imagine their power makes them lonely because no one can understand the burdens they bear. Undisturbed in their isolation, they think they are unobserved. Better see them for what they are, which is unobservant, for a horde of underlings circles around them always: who chauffeured them from their manor to the office, or kept the lobby clear of obstacles and the elevator doors open and waiting? Who keeps the printer toned and full of paper, the trashcans emptied, and gilded faucets gleaming? Does the food so tastefully described in the menu of the day materialize unaided by human hands, like the miracle of the loaves and fishes?

I suspect the boss who fears having too frequent interaction with the common employee knows the encounter risks reminding both that their differences are slight. Better that they surround themselves with the trappings of power, reinforcing a distinction in appearance if not in substance. Though if they only paused to consider what sort of difference they were drawing with this thinking, they might think twice. Give one person a low position and raise another up high. Have you done anything to either’s sharp hearing, far seeing, or clear thinking? The lowly perceive in an instant every false note from their bosses, just as those senior are shutting their senses to all beneath them.

Worse than the boss who blinds themselves to what is going on around them is the boss who convinces themselves that they have become better by virtue of their elevation. They may have failed basic math and be hopeless adding single digit sums without a calculator, but they become geniuses at calculating their respective status on the social ladder. There is no sadder spectacle than a boss who berates their secretary while toadying up to the board committee members overseeing compensation.

It betrays real cruelty to knowingly treat another as beneath you simply because they serve you. But to do so out of ignorance of their inherent worth is an even worse offense to your own worth. For what kind of person says a colleague is to be prized because of their tailored suit and Rolex watch, while another is base because they lack them? I will tell you what kind of person, Deuteros, and pray you do not find yourself among their number.

You have seen this person out of their business setting but still in their element: they stroll without a blush to the front of the security line, because they are in a hurry and have a plane to catch. It effortlessly escapes their attention that every person they’ve walked past has an identical objective, and some will be on the same plane, and it is as well they have averted their gaze for they would otherwise see murder in a thousand eyes.

Well before you arrive at the restaurant door, you hear this person enunciate the words that serve as their passport to prominence, “Don’t you know who I am!” It is a declarative statement, not a question, for no answer other than abject apology for the delay is acceptable. What goes unsaid by the maître’ d’ and all others in earshot is this: “I know exactly who you are, and you are a fool.”

But this person is a fool who will be gladly suffered for the sake of parting them with their folding cash. When you are welcomed with air kisses and open arms into the boutique or gallery that would turn away all but the most well-heeled, consider whether it is your person or your wallet that is being courted.

Things that have true value are not counted in money. People are not properly measured by their outward appearance. A boss that places their faith in money and appearances may gain both in the short term, but it is their fate to be forgotten. They retire to their golf courses on the East Coast barrier islands, and no one marks their passing as a loss. Though their gated communities are virtual barriers to the poor, they are nonetheless filled with the unworthy.

Be well.

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