On the copier this morning I found a blank "Client Values Questionnaire," a very good one, as it happens from Jerry Chasen. But I had been thumbing through Amy Kass's literary readings on philanthropy in her Giving Well, Doing Good. I had King Lear on the top of my mind and Isabel Archer, the ardent young American woman in Henry James's Portrait of a Lady. Both Lear towards the end of his life, and Isabel at her coming of age, make disastrous choices while expressing their values, blindness, flawed character. Of Lear it is said by one ungrateful daughter, "He ever knew himself but slenderly." Say, then, that as consultants we had given Lear or Isabel our preferred "Values Questionnaire" to guide us in helping them with their plans. (Isabel's revolve around what she will do with an unlooked for inheritance. The upshot is that she falls prey to an urbane and sadistic fortune hunter. Lear's plans revolve around leaving his legacy; a project he so botches that he soon sleeps naked on the heath, his brain at war with itself, as is his former kingdom.) Of what use would Lear's or Isabel's self-reported values be, as they set out on their projects with their flawed self-understanding? They, we, each of us, live our lives in state of delusion. We come to our senses, if we ever do, only be colliding with a reality that resists our "values," and other vanities.
Our values are not what we say they are, since we are self-deluded. Nor are our values what they will be when we wise up, if we ever do. The gap between what we are, and what we think we are is enormous. That gap closes at great cost. That is what literature teaches us at every turn. Life does too. Better to ask clients about "values" than not to ask, but remember that what they verbalize is no more than a symptom of the disease that is running its course. Our job is not to serve the symptom, but cure the blindness. (No! False! Our job is to serve the blind King or deluded heiress. The Fool's job is to save them from their folly. Not our job.)
As a well paid peer of mine in this dim profession of ours, when interviewed as an expert by a bank eager to garner the assets of wealthy people on behalf of philanthropy, said, "We give the wealthy what they want." Shakespeare and Henry James show the dismal result. But we are not artists, nor wise, but worldly wise. By giving the wealthy what they want we get a piece of their action, as did Goneril and Regan, as did the sadistic fortune hunter, and Machiavel, Gilbert Osmond. We do well by doing good, discreetly and with due deference.
Wisdom is a Harlot, who brokers her favors to the highest bidder, while dressing as a lady too polite and demure to even meet my eye as she passes on the arm of her Gentleman Caller. She has been to Finishing School, and never uses bad language in public, though in private she is open to negotiation. "A deal," she likes to say, "is a good deal when it works for the benefit of both parties. I will give you what you want. In return just let me hold your wallet." But who am I to object, a risen pimp from the scene rooms of Wealth Bondage? Whatever my peers in this business have done, I have done worse and for less money. I should learn to keep my mouth shut. But at this point what more do I have to lose? "Truth is a bitch who must to kennel," as Lear's Fool says, or words to that effect. Not that we Fools, no less mad than our clients, are known for speaking truth except in riddles and jests. Socrates was as he said the wisest of men because he knew he new nothing. For all of that he died as a criminal, executed for speaking out of turn to those in power. This dynamism of values based consulting to powerful families is ancient; almost every page of it is stained with blood. Read up on two of the best, Seneca and Cicero. See how they ended up. (Seneca was driven to suicide by an emperor. Cicero standing up for the Republic in an age of tryanny, had his throat slit as he fled Rome. His hands and tongue were nailed to the rostrum in the Senate. A former values-based client's wife, it is said, drove her hair pin through his severed tongue, as her comment on his eloquence.) And from this trade, my friends, this Fool's errand, you hope to make your fortune? Lucy, is it for this that banks call us and ask how best to do well by doing good? Were they do their job of values based counselling right for even 12 hours, the streets would run red with their blood.