A thought inspired by Tuesday’s Daf (page) in the Talmud, Gittin 63
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Moments of power.
This post presents a philosophical idea inspired by the text of today’s Daf. The Daf is one page in the Talmud that tens of thousands of people study each day. I explain the connection to the text in a comment below. My purpose is to show that there are underlying philosophical assumptions in the Talmud that can have great significance for anybody today trying to understand our complex reality.
There are moments in our lives that have a significant impact on our future and the lives of others. On the other hand, there are also long stretches of time where no specific moment is particularly significant.
Moments of power are those tiny instances of time when we exercise our power to make an impact. The defining features of these moments are that they are irrevocable, very short and have significant consequences.
We can also express our power by avoiding such moments. For example, every second we spend driving a car could potentially lead to a terrible moment with serious consequences. By driving safely and without incidents, we are exercising our power to avoid these negative moments. Similarly, while interacting with others, we may not create much impact in individual seconds, but a single instance of insult could have an irrevocable effect. Thus, moments of power can be seen as existing in both positive and negative states, based on what we do or choose not to do.
Some moments of power involve verbal communication, while others are action-oriented. While words can be interpreted and may not be entirely irrevocable, actions like pressing a button or destroying something have a more final impact.
Making a purchase, signing a contract, or giving an order are moments when we exercise the power entrusted to us by society.
Society often concentrates power in extreme ways. Some individuals have the power to significantly impact the lives of many others, while others may have much less power. For example, a judge has the power to decide a punishment, or a legislator has the authority to write new laws. These deliberations may take a long time, but the specific moment when a ruling is made, or a deciding vote is cast, is a moment of power.
Once a law is enacted, that moment of power becomes a lasting legal statement. However, since this moment of power is primarily verbal, the effect of these words depends on their interpretation. Later on, the question may arise as to whether the words should be interpreted independently of the context or whether the intention of the legislators at the time the law was enacted should be taken into account.
Moments of power bring about both stability and instability. While a moment of power causes a sudden change, the periods between these moments are less likely to change continuously. This allows others to plan and make decisions within a relatively stable context. If changes occurred continuously, decision-making would be impossible as the ground would constantly be shifting. In this sense, everyone else needs change to concentrate into specific moments, leaving other times more stable.
However, the fact that many changes that impact our lives happen in a single moment leaves us vulnerable to the dangers created by the impulsive nature of that moment. While we hope that moments of power are the result of careful deliberation, this is not always the case. This instability is the consequence of these moments of power.
When a decision is made based on thoughtful consideration over time, more processing power has been involved in the decision-making process. If a person is able to compute only so much reasoning, in, say, a minute, then hours or days of deliberation might represent the accumulated reasoning of all that time.
Similarly, when power is concentrated in the hands of a few individuals who make decisions that affect a large population, there is less processing power applied to the decision. This danger posed by the fact that less processing has been devoted to a critical decision, is compounded by the fact that concentrated power does not allow for diverse viewpoints and the deliberative process that contribute to making better decisions.