06.07b Dignity, Purpose, and Rank-- Remains of the Day. . In Kazuo Ishiguro's 1989 novel, The Remains of the Day, the narrator- butler, Mr. Stevens, tells how in a country village a certain Mr. Harry Smith said that it was important to dignity to voice opinions on the great issues of the day. That made him think of an episode when a guest of his employer, Mr. Spencer, called him in and asked him for his opinions on various questions of economics and international politics, to make the point that someone like a butler was too uneducated to have a right to an opinion. Mr. Stevens says on page 199,

Of course, it is quite absurd to expect any butler to be in a position to answer authoritatively questions of the sort Mr Spencer had put to me that night, and the claim of people like Mr. Harry Smith that one's 'dignity' is conditional on being able to do so can be seen for the nonsense it is. Let us establish this quite clearly: a butler's duty is to provide good service. It is not to meddle in the great affairs of the nation. The fact is, such great affairs will always be beyond the understanding of those such as you and I, and those of us who wish to make our mark must realize that we best do so by concentrating on what is within our realm; that is to say, by devoting our attention to providing the best possible service to those great gentlement in whose hands the destiny of civilization truly lies.

This is a crucial passage in the book. Near the end of the book, Stevens is sad that he has devoted his life to an employer, Lord Darlington, who turned out to be completely wrong in his efforts to build peace between Britain and Germany-- appeasement. Lord Darlington at least "made his own mistakes". But at the very end, Stevens returns to the idea that his duty is to be a good butler, and thinks about how he can learn the art of "banter" to be a better one.

I think Stevens is right in the passage above. He was unable to make good decisions on his own, so trying to serve someone whose opinion he respected made sense. Appeasement in the 1930's is no disproof of this. If Stevens had thought for himself, he would no doubt have come to the same opinion-- that appeasement was good-- because that was what most people concluded. It was not just Lord Darlington, who, in the book, is clearly well-intentioned if of limited intellect. Most politicians supported appeasement because it was politically popular.

And Stevens is quite correct that if dignity is conditional on being able to answer questions about international finance, 99% of people are going to end up without any dignity. If, on the other hand, dignity derives from doing your duty well, it is within the reach of every person, and, indeed, is easier for the butler than for the lord. Stevens *was* a first-rate butler, but Lord Darlington, despite good intentions and hard work, ends up disgraced, duped, and despondent. Leadership is not fun.

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