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Literature / Systems of Survival

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Systems of Survival is an exploration of human cultural/ethical systems by Jane Jacobs, a specialist in municipal politics and sociology. It is based on the assumption that human society is necessarily a function of the symbiosis between the protective or preservative (Guardian) function and the creative (Trader) function. Like many "theories of humankind", it should be taken with a grain of salt but reading the book can provide insights, and perhaps can be useful for devising characters and their role..


The author often talks as if the two specialties are incompatible. In fact it is possible for one person to use ethical systems proper to both specialties as long as the person admits the difference and uses them in their proper areas. And indeed some occupations lie at the borders. The author however fears the corruption that can result in not understanding the difference; for instance, if a soldier (a "Guardian" occupation) reveals a secret, that would be treason, and if a scientist (a "Trader" occupation) conceals it, that would be dishonesty.

A Guardian is expected to be Lawful Good. He is a professional Papa Wolf and holds to the ethos of institutions which are summed up in being a team of Papa Wolves. Typical Guardian occupations would be rulers, soldiers, police, firemen, clergy, hopefully-not-obstructive bureaucrats, charity-workers. Or sometimes the larger and more institutionalized forms of business. Or other occupations that involve protecting people, places, things, or ideas. His job should involve helping the helpless.


A Trader is expected to be Neutral Good and is comfortable with the ethos of individuals or small groups rather then institutions. Typical Trader occupations are storekeepers, scientists, or craftsmen. He provides material and knowledge to society. By the authors definition producers and most artists(though art often caters to Guardians and has a Guardian ethos; many art forms exalt guardian ideals) would be traders.

There are a few jobs that straddle the two. Lawyers fight in a sort of Duel to the Death in the courtroom, and negotiate deals outside. Though the author doesn't mention it, Intrepid Merchants are sometimes this as well because they are often Guardians while traveling and Traders when they enter the City. An example of the later combination might be the Viking warrior-merchants of old, for instance.


According to Jane Jacob's theory Guardians exchange protection for support with Traders. Or to put it another way a Trader makes sure food is on the table and a Guardian makes sure no one steals it. At a crude level it is like The Mafia. At a better level it is more subtle and healthy and the symbiosis gives us something like a Republic. Contrast between the two mindsets underlies the Athens and Sparta trope.

This book comes dangerously close to seeming to be suggesting that the ideal society is a caste system in the author's mind. In fact the author seems to prefer societies where people can switch roles as long as they understand the proper ethical system for each. But you have to read a little more carefully to catch that. An important theme is the danger of mixing the values of the two functions in unhealthy ways. An example the author gives of this is The Mafia. The book must not be taken too literally but it does give some insights into human ethical tradition. For instance it gives an explanation as to why violence and deception are sometimes considered laudable in some contexts and abhorrent in others. The normal answer being of course that those activities can only be used when carrying out a Guardian (Papa Wolf) type task and then only sometimes. Other ethical questions addressed are, "should one be honest or loyal when forced to choose" , and "can industriousness become corrupt" (Yes, Guardianship does not require continual work, and a Knight in Shining Armor who has no more dragons to slay should be glad of the rest).

The book is written in an interesting manner. Instead of being a long essay like most books of this kind, it is framed in the model of an imaginary symposium between a group of fictional characters. This twist is an interesting enough one to use again in similar works of the kind.

The values proper to each role are according to the author:


  • Shun Trading: Keep the gain motive at arms length. Often this can lead to snobbery of Guardians toward Traders. However it is at the same time necessary for a Guardian to make sure his impartiality does not look like it can be compromised. For instance in America, it is common to have a politician's personal investments managed by brokers who do not tell him what his investment is, lest his employer have a conflict of interest.
  • Exert Prowess: Be a badass. Because Manly Men Can Hunt and A Real Man Is a Killer.
  • Be Obedient and Disciplined: A Guardian DOES believe in The Spartan Way.
  • Adhere to Tradition: Respect the Good Old Ways. It is good for a cop to be a By-the-Book Cop.
    • Tradition serves several purposes. It reinforces group loyalty. It also helps make sure that power does not corrupt too much. Just Following Orders is a limited defense but so long as there is a reasonable idea of what orders can be issued when and when not there is a protection. An example of this is the American custom of demanding search warrants before entering a residency.
  • Respect Hierarchy: Do what The Captain says
  • Be Loyal: The Power of Friendship Is Mighty
    • Like honesty, loyalty to strangers whose only connection is membership in the same institution is so counterintuitive that it must be hammered home.
  • Take Vengeance: Because a Guardian is Guarding and must make sure that those who threaten his clients know that It's Personal.
    • Another aspect is that one of the most important jobs of The Government (a Guardian institution) is to have a way to outsource revenge to a theoretically impartial authority. This avoids the difficulty caused by Feuding Families and Cycles of Revenge.
  • Deceive for the sake of the task: Be a Magnificent Bastard. Or at least a Guile Hero. It's part of the job.
    • Note that deception in this context must be mission oriented and that it is disloyal to deceive co-workers. For instance, if a cop buys illegal arms while his comrades watch with a hidden camera, that is part of the job. However if the same cop cheats at a poker game with fellow cops he is still a cheater.
  • Make Rich Use Of Leisure: Have style even in the way you play. Be a Cultured Warrior.
    • This is more important then it sounds. For one thing it reinforces group loyalty. For another if a Guardian is bored, he might be tempted to work too hard at his job or even invent threats, when he should be a Cincinnatus. One substitute for work is practice, another is play. Some activities are or once were intended as both.
  • Be Ostentatious: Don't just be a badass, look like one. Wear a Badass Longcoat. Recite a Badass Creed. The more people believe you can "exert prowess" and "take vengence", the less you will actually have to do so.
  • Dispense Largese: Remember to give Sacred Hospitality.
    • "Largesse" in the book's sense is not so much altruism per se (though it can also be that) as it is a way of showing a Guardian's prestige. A classic example is the "ring-giving" of old-fashioned war chiefs. Another example is the old custom of patronage of art or learning. In essence a trader is investing in gain, and a guardian is investing in reinforcing his guardianship. Those who have both tasks will have to choose.
  • Be Exclusive: Because there's no point in being a badass if everyone is. Furthermore, one must be careful as those Guardians who are guarding The Empire or The Mafia, also believe in "decieving for the sake of the task"(see above).
  • Show Fortitude: Be a Determinator.
  • Be Fatalistic: It is good to be a Stoic.
  • Treasure Honor: Honor definitely comes before reason.


  • Shun Force: No one will trade with you if you intend to rob them.
  • Come to Voluntary agreements: This is necessary for Up Marketing.
  • Be Honest: Business depends on everyone being able to take for granted that almost everyone else will stick to the rules close enough for cheating not to be a danger
    • One of the most important needs for an efficient market is for honesty to be taken for granted. A complex economic system is a network of promises made between strangers. As the individual rewards for dishonesty are so obvious, honesty must be instinctive.
  • Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens: One person's dollar is as good as another.
  • Compete
  • Respect Contracts: Because a trader gave his word. And traders must trust each other. If no one believes in the value of a dollar then a dollar has no value.
  • Use Initiative and Enterprise
  • Be Open to Inventiveness and Novelty
  • Be Efficient: Being Good with Numbers is good for you
  • Promote Confort and Convenience : Because The Spartan Way does not attract customers.
  • Dissent For the Sake of the Task: A cool trader rebels against authority. He is sure he knows better about it then authority. As "Authority" often means Guardians interfering in his business, he is likely right seeing as By The Book is for cops, not enterprenuers.
    • Having a proper respect for ones own ideas is a mark of a good businessman. The most respected traders were those that came up with something new.
  • Invest for productive purposes: Use the money to increase wealth.
  • Be Industrious: Work, Work, Work.
  • Be Thrifty: You need money to make money
  • Be Optimistic: A Trader believes every problem has a solution.

This theory helps construct characters. Possibly a disproportionate number of both Heroes and Villains will be Guardians, for many Traders are Ignorant of the Call. However many quite good Trader characters have been made. Conflict between Trader and Guardian morality can be used as a plot device. For instance in one NUMB3RS episode Charlie gives away classified material because it is needed to advance Pakistani agriculture (Trader Ethic: Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens, naturally what Charlie would think of being a mathematician), and this makes trouble for his family with the FBI because it is after all classified (Guardian Ethic: Be loyal, what Don and other FBI agents would think of). Things like that can be used in other places.

Examples in fiction:

Some Guardian Characters:

Some Trader Characters:

Alternating or Straddling Characters:

  • Heroes: Charles Eppes: Trader(scientist and mathematician) by inclination, sometimes Guardian(FBI consultant) by vocation, Malcom Reynolds : Trader by profession, being an Intrepid Merchant Captain but he is a former soldier, and sometimes a robber which is by the authors definition a more barbaric kind of "guardian". Besides Intrepid Merchant s often have to provide their own guardianship("A ship gets you a cargo, a gun helps you keep it").
  • Villains: Rene Benoit: because a trader in illegal arms must provide his own guardianship being rather like an Intrepid Merchant in that respect.