Erasmus vs Machiavelli

Should the job of a reference librarian in assisting patrons be to “Serve Their Needs, Not Their Wants?” In other words, if you couldn’t be both, what would you rather be: popular or right?

This question is tricky to answer because it can only be answered after a deeper ethical issue beyond library science is addressed: should those with the wisdom and power do what is right, or should they do what works? I think the implication of the question is that how we perceive our relationship to other human beings might have ramifications in regard to our service to them. As Vanessa succinctly put it: most people come to a reference desk seeking help in finding a specific item, or they come for general advice on a topic of research. In the former instance, there is no ethical dilemma, but there may be in the latter. In the former we encounter a would-be expert who is looking to inform himself on a specific topic in order to answer a question, in the latter we are asked to be a teacher, at least in the sense that we are given authority as a gateway to new knowledge. What collections we choose reflects upon our own ethical dispositions: are we offering them what is easiest to understand and to find, just to satisfy them, or are we offering them something which will serve the needs of a virtuous citizen?

This is the classical dichotomy between Erasmus and Machiavelli. Erasmus through Education of a Christian Prince advocated leaders who upheld moral imperatives in order to raise their charges to noble states of mind, while Machiavelli’s Prince advocated a ruthless and pragmatic politic based on what is, not what could be. If Erasmus was a librarian, I think he would cater to the needs of the individual, based on knowledge of the good and of virtue, what would nourish the individual. Machiavelli might look upon it differently: giving them what they want so that they are pacified, and less likely to cause problems. Of course, it’s bad philosophy to conjecture in such a manner, but the underlying themes are relevant and so is the fundamental question underpinning both works: what is the role of a leader in influencing the habits and knowledge of those who ask for him to lead? A librarian who considers himself a professional in the technical sense might cater swiftly to the wants, but a librarian who considers himself a librarian in vocation might think differently. For a vocation is more than simply a means of acquiring a paycheck, it’s a work which defines a person, and so with it the person looks beyond its mere technical obligations. How will you be remembered in death?

Machiavelli might say that it’s important to be both popular and right in the sense that you have two faces. One face caters to the wants and expectations of a capricious public, while the other is hidden and knows the right, working skillful machinations to bring it about for the greater good at expense of momentary righteousness. Erasmus might say that we leaders, the librarians, should always attend to the right, and hopefully by our example, inspire those who seek us to lead them to favor the right rather than the wants themselves.

Personally, I side with the Erasmus line of reasoning, as it is an ethical credo which underlies everything I do, not only librarianship. If possible show people the right, so that we might live in a world befitting of our nature. Ultimately the wisest individual has knowledge of what is and what is not needed, as derived from reason, and so might rightfully want. Perfect virtue exists in wanting what is righteous.


You’re right in the sense that what is popular and right (or want and need) is not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they do tend to be opposed. For example: a heroin addict wants heroin, but living day by day in a drug-addled haze, exploiting everyone around you to get your next fix, is not right, or needed (the chemical aspect of the addiction excepted). In this scenario what is popular and right is mutually exclusive. This is an extreme example, but it’s a clear one to most people. There are more subtle examples that are just as clear to those with greater shares of knowledge and wisdom, and those with the latter must have the inclination to steer those with less a share to the right.

As I said, the wise man wants what is right, what is needed, so they are not mutually exclusive. Yet, the unwise often want what is neither right nor needed. If we have the opportunity to steer them right, why don’t we? Herein the big issue is revealed: we must have a notion of our relationship and duties in regard to other human beings before we can answer the superficial questions.

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