I am enamored with the three-legged stool.
In looking back on just where such an oddball affinity came from, I’m thinking it started with its colorful use as a prop by the late great He-Coon Florida governor Lawton Chiles. In his 1991 State of the State speech, Governor Chiles waved a three-legged stool in the air as an illustration of the American system of balance of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Saw a leg off, and that stool won’t sit right.
I’ve come to believe deeply, even reverently, in the balance of powers. The three legs of the stool of democracy achieves what is best in human history by acknowledging what is worst in human nature… that too much power tends to get the best of us pretty easily.
When I came back around to the religious faith of my childhood as an adult, good grief if I didn’t find another three-legged stool sitting right there in my Episcopal faith. The legs of this stool are Scripture, Tradition and Reason.
For a hoot, I googled “three-legged stool.” Apparently that little stool is a metaphor for balance in just about everything – Ronald Reagan’s conservative coalition, executive managerial theory, mind body & spirit – and on and on.
I recently found another sensible three-legged stool in Jim Wallis’ book The Great Awakening:
All three sectors of a society need to be functioning well for its health and well-being – the private (market) sector, the public sector, and the civil society (nongovernmental and nonprofit organizations, of which faith communities are a part). It is indeed like a three-legged stool. Each sector has crucial roles to play, and each should do what only it can do and not replace what the others can do better.
Private vs. public, business vs. government, church vs. state. The now dull and predictable political argument rages on, straining credibility that it never settles on the obvious conclusion that it’s “and” rather than “either/or”.
That lowly three-legged stool, it sits so close to the ground – so inconspicuously that you might just trip over it. But when you need to get something way up high, whether it’s a can of tomato soup or the makings of a fine democracy, it is so there for you.
All we have to do is make sure it sits right.
Liz Joyner is the cofounder of the Village Square. Contact her at email@example.com.