Lessons from Rulers and Subjects (Book Review)

One of the beauties of literature is that it is sometimes so abstract that I can use that abstractness to explain things I don’t understand and answer questions life gives me. Take “The Bridge on the Drina” by Ivo Andrić for example. It is a historical fiction about Bosnia and how Bosnian lifestyle and customs change in the span of two hundred years as Bosnia gets transferred from being under the rule of the Ottomans to being occupied by the Austrians. The book is an ongoing timeline that comprises of so many little stories that essentially reflect how the life around the bridge changed slowly in the span of two hundred years. The beauty of book is that Andrić, between each of the little stories, very subtly interjects life lessons; so subtly that if I had not been paying attention, I almost would never have caught on to them.

In one such interjection, Andrić writes, “for those who rule and must oppress in order to rule must work according to reason; and if, carried away by their passions or driven by an adversary, they go beyond the limits of reasonable action, they start down the slippery slope, and thereby reveal the commencement of their own downfall. Whereas those who are downtrodden and exploited make equal use of their reason and unreason for they are but two different kinds of arms in the continual struggle, now underground, now open, against the oppressor.” (Chapter VI)

To put some context to his interjection, Andrić writes this as a conclusion to the scene wherein both Bosnian Turks and Serbs are at a threat from riots in the neighboring village. In Andrić’s case, on one hand, the perpetrators of the riots are the rulers: they stop the terror once enough damage is done. On the other hand, the Bosnians and Serbs are the downtrodden ones: they use both reason and unreason to protect themselves. They use reason in that they do not continually discuss the events after the riots end and they use unreason- something that I equate to emotion- in their interaction with one another.



This quote has so much relevance to my fellow student counterparts around the world who dream of making some kind of difference in the world. From how I see us, we subconsciously tend to envision ourselves as the rulers by trying to gain power and status. Then, because we are consumed by the fear that if we deviate from this subconsciously predefined path, we become afraid of losing all the advantages that the role of a ruler has given us. Perhaps that is why so many ambitious people tend to prioritize their work- or whatever it is that helps them become the ruler- above everything else.

In contrast, when the day comes that the ruler loses his power to rule- because creative destruction is inevitable and that day will surely come- the ruler will have to begin as one of the oppressed. This means that by using both his reason and emotion, he will have to rebuild his way back to the top- just like the Bosnians and Serbians do to rebuild their lives after the revolt.

This speculation might sound too abstract; so, to give an example that most people are familiar with lets look at Steve Jobs. Basing this example from information I got from the movie Jobs, this most successful entrepreneur and innovator initially showed signs of the ruler category. He was driven solely by his ambition, only to be furthered by his reduction of everything to a cost-benefit analysis. However that he was asked to step down from his own company helped him acquire the characteristics of the oppressed- he returned to his previous position of authority by making use of a combination of reason and emotion embodied in his work ethic and familial life.

Thus, a final insight from Andrić’s work is that it only goes to show how our conventional perception of success can be flawed. Ruling and being ruled are a matter of chance and circumstance. What is important is that in order to truly successful, one has to go through the process of being both the ruler and the subject- a lesson so well lent to interpretation in Andrić’s The Bridge on the Drina.

Written By: Namrata Haribal
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