This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

This Dark Age is now available in paperback on Amazon. The print version is MUCH cleaner than this online version, which is largely unedited and has fallen by the wayside as the project has grown. If you’ve appreciated my writing, please consider leaving a review on the relevant paperback volumes. The print edition also includes new sections (Military History, War Psychology, Dogmatic Theology).

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What’s your sphere of competence?

I’ve been trying to develop the concept of ‘competence’ in order to illustrate where ignorance ends, and knowledge begins. It is an important subject because I would hate to give the impression that I see people as stupid, good-for-nothings who shouldn’t be trusted with a stapler. On the contrary, the human mind is capable of incredible feats of understanding. All I wish to emphasize is that his mind is still a human one, which is to say it is limited. In order for us to make the most of what we have, we must focus our powers where they will actually be effective.

Everybody has a sphere of competence. Some may stretch further than others, and everyone’s sphere is bound to be a bit different, but the important point is that everyone’s sphere ends, and it usually ends a lot sooner than we like to think.

This truth–that the sphere of competence exists and must be respected–has profound implications for political theory. It is the reason why serious political philosophers through the age have acknowledged democracy, but dismissed it as inappropriate for large-scale government. For example, Sir Robert Filmer said in 1680 that “no Democracy can extend further than One City. It is impossible to Govern a Kingdom, much less many Kingdoms by the whole People, or by the Greatest Part of them.”

It was not that democracy was not feasible in any way. It was simply that it required all its participants to have a sphere of competence that encompassed the whole of the system. This is doable, perhaps, in a small city–a very small city. But anything beyond that begins to put impossible expectations on the participants by expecting them to address, through voting, a number of problems that are well beyond their spheres.

Each one of us has a few things which we are good at, a few tasks which we understand and can accomplish with proficiency. We may go beyond these and experiment with other tasks if the consequences are trivial, or if we find ourselves in a training environment where that sort of thing is appropriate; but I should not be diagnosing my friends with heart conditions, nor should I attempt to give them root canals, nor should I, personally, try to fix their engines, since I know nothing about that. In short, we all know enough not to go beyond our “sphere of competence” in daily life.

One might respond that, in voting, we are selecting a person, and this is based on our judgement of his character, and does not imply that we think we know how to make decisions on the national scale. Setting aside the fact that you must understand the issues in order to judge another’s competence to solve them, we can still place the process of ‘character judgement’ within the context of the sphere of competence.

The same reasoning applies as before. We all have a group of people whom we know something about because they are our neighbors, coworkers, friends, and family. We know that beyond these people, whom we have encountered on a personal level, the world is full of strangers—people whose experiences, strengths, faults, or beliefs we do not understand. And it would be foolish to pretend we did. So while I admit that you might be competent to select a person you trust from within your family or neighborhood or hometown, I must also insist that you are only able to do this because that is your sphere of competence. You actually know these people. So my question is: has your sphere ever included a presidential candidate?

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