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Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.
- Salvor Hardin

This sentence has always struck me as a bit off. I see two ways to interpret it:

  1. If violence is your last option, you are incompetent. (rephrased in terms of competent people: The competent always have another option beyond violence.)
  2. If violence isn't your first option, you are incompetent. (rephrased in terms of competent people: Violence is the first refuge of the competent.) Here, the usage of last is similar to that in it's in the last place you look: once you reach this option, you won't have to fall back to another. Therefore, this should the first option.

The author obviously meant the first. But, somehow, I can't shake off the feeling that the latter is also a valid interpretation. Is it? Or am I missing something?

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    It may be that you are missing the meaning of last refuge; in no case is it a recommendation. – Tim Lymington Aug 13 '15 at 11:17
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    "Last refuge" (or "last resort") is something of an idiom, meaning that the individual will utilize that resource when everything else is exhausted. The idiom is indeed a bit nonsensical, and several notable speakers/writers have pointedly substituted "first refuge" for "last refuge". Ambrose Bierce wrote "In Dr. Johnson's famous dictionary patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer I beg to submit it is the first." – Hot Licks Aug 13 '15 at 11:26
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    (Though one should note that Johnson reportedly wrote "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.") – Hot Licks Aug 13 '15 at 11:30
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    In (2), it's not that you won't have to fall back to another; it's that you can't fall back to another because there is nothing left -- that's why it's the last resort. Once you have reached violence, you have proved your incompetence. – Andrew Leach Aug 13 '15 at 13:47
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    So that means that (2) must be the wrong interpretation. "If violence isn't your first option, you are incompetent." Er, no. You don't have to start out with violence because you're incompetent. You can try to screw a screw in with a variety of tools, including even a screwdriver, before resorting to a hammer. I guess it comes down to the interpretation of the word resort (or refuge). Here, it means "solution." One can resort to a number of methods to screw in the screw before the last resort of the hammer. – Andrew Leach Aug 13 '15 at 13:56

11 Answers 11

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My understanding of this line is:

Incompetent individuals, by definition, do not possess skills and wisdom. Therefore when they have (quickly) exhausted their small arsenal of half-cocked and ill-fated techniques to solve the extant problem, they invariably fall upon violence as their last hope.

The implied corollary is that anyone using violence to solve a problem must therefore be incompetent. Indeed that is the point of this statement- it is an insult.

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  • So, do you suggest that the sentence itself is a kind of elaborated violent rhetoric? – psychoslave Mar 1 '18 at 5:45
  • @psychoslave No I do not. – Marv Mills Mar 2 '18 at 8:14
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The whole point is that the incompetent person resorts to violence because he is too incompetent to think of any other option.

Similarly, Dr Johnson was saying that "scoundrels" invoke patriotism because they have few other resources (that they can think of) at their disposal. (Note that this is a backwards way of saying that those who readily invoke patriotism are scoundrels.)

The idiom (in this sense) is not trying to say that the "last resort" is literally the last (or first, per Mr Bierce) thing that this incompetent/scroundelish person will utilize, but that this person relies very heavily on what is otherwise a relatively unsavory option.

(And when a "normal" person refers to something and says "that's our last resort", he's not literally saying that that's the last thing that will be done, but that that's a very distasteful option, and one to be avoided if reasonably possible.)

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4

The competent will never use the violence, because he is capable of solving any problem, therefore a competent man. The incompetent in the other end, not being wise in solving the problem will at last fall for violence. If a person uses violence as first resource, he is not necessary and incompetent man, but an evil one.

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    Esteban has it, I believe. The author meant exactly what he said, because pacifism is considered the wiser path. Any use of violence shows a degree of incompetence, or at least a lack of wisdom. I think the meaning is just as honest if we replace 'incompetent' with 'unempathetic'. – Tim Ward Nov 5 '15 at 19:39
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You seem to believe that the intention is the first interpretation. But, I think your second interpretation is an attempt to pervert the intention of last refuge with respect to incompetent. Allow me to offer a different interpretation:

Even competent people may have to resort to violence. You are reasonably allowed to defend yourself from physical violence, or even to some extent preemptively act against an imminent danger to yourself or others. But the incompetent will believe the act of violence alone is enough to give them refuge (and thus continues to repeat violence as a final solution). The competent realize that there is more to be done beyond the violent act to achieve security.

In my interpretation, last refuge is taken to be more akin to last bastion than it is to last resort.

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  • Yes, last refuge is indeed the problem here. IMO an incompetent person would simply be violent first and consider other options later. – muru Aug 13 '15 at 14:48
  • My interpretation is that the incompetent do not consider any options beyond violence. Read last as final. – jxh Aug 13 '15 at 14:49
  • IMO by dissecting the wording you are missing the point- the idiom "[something] is the last refuge of [a category of something]" has a meaning of its own above and beyond the normal meaning of the individual words. – Marv Mills Aug 13 '15 at 15:02
  • @MarvMills The problem is: the usual meaning of last refuge/resort (is there a distinction?) is that it's something you try after you have tried everything else. And if you really have exhausted all other options, and then pick your last option, no matter how distasteful it might be, does that make you incompetent? It's quite a different thing to say that violence is the first (my POV) or the only (jxh's POV) route you take than the result of a straightforward application of last resort/refuge's meaning to the quote. – muru Aug 13 '15 at 15:31
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    @MarvMills: I am not sure it is an idiom. Even if the phrasing is oft used, it does not mean every usage of the phrasing is applying what you consider an idiomatic understanding. Consider Bierce's response to Johnson. Bierce also interprets last as the last choice of many tried, but if you take the interpretation of last as final, then Johnson is saying the scoundrel hides behind the rationale of "patriotism" and stays put. – jxh Aug 13 '15 at 21:05
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I think the phrase is meant to tell us about the incompetent and not about violence (even though it reads as this is what violence is). I don't think it says anything about people to whom violence is a first or intermediary resort or whether violence is a good or bad thing. They may or may not be incompetent but might just like violence or be very expert at it. Some people are very competent at violence.

I think the phrase means anyone who goes to violence as their last refuge is incompetent. Only the incompetent would take refuge in violence and only as a last resort.

Examples:

  • I don't think many people would regard Hitler as incompetent (at least before 1942). He used violence and the threat of violence very effectively but also demonstrated competence in other methods (political intrigue and propaganda for example).

  • Pol Pot came to power through luck at every stage and was completely incompetent at running a popular movement or country and took refuge in violence and it was his last resort.

I think the original phrase by Samuel Johnson, Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, is meant in the same way. I don't think it is saying that patriotism is for scoundrels or that all scoundrels will resort to patriotism. Some people are patriotic and are not scoundrels. Some scoundrels are not patriotic. I think the phrase only means that only a scoundrel would take refuge in it and only as a last resort.

In the case of Johnson, it is, as I understand it, hearsay of a phrase without context so we can only speculate what it was intended to mean.

In the case of Asimov, he is certainly a very intelligent writer attributing this saying to a fictional character who is meant to be one of the most intelligent people in a galactic empire of multitillions (or more) of people. Asimov may not have put as much thought into it as we are here but, then again, he may have thought about it a lot more. I don't think he would be so unscientific as to think that incompetent people always resort to violence (or take refuge in it as a last resort). There are obviously plenty of incompetent people who do not (I would say resorting to surrender or running away is more common). That is why I think it probably has a more subtle and specific meaning: violence as a refuge - only incompetent people go there and only at last.

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It strikes me as an interesting thing that so many of you didn't get the simple meaning of this statement. Maybe that's because you haven't read the novel and don't know about the characters and events involved. Salvor Hardin here is specifically talking about the possibility to engage in political and armed conflicts in the position he finds himself in (one of leadership), an option he would reject at all costs, if possible.

He says that violence is the "last" and not the "first refuge of the incompetent" so as to further revile the violent act, like "violence is so bad that even incompetent people should use it only as a last resort, needless to say smarter ones (like me)".

Obviously incompetent people will often use violence when facing their problems (hence the apparent discrepancy of the sentence), but Asimov's quote here isn't about what happens in actual life, it's a sharp criticism about violence and its unfitness for the higher human being. He's only using a simple but effective rethorical device to make that point.

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I always read this as saying that violence is the last remaining place where incompetent people can find refuge, because as the world becomes more advanced high skilled people are in more demand, and less skilled people have fewer refuges. As in "People that choose a life of violence only do so because they are too incompetent to do anything else." I read it as a burn on the warlords who Hardin was negotiating with, saying that they are only doing war because they are the stupid type of people that take those jobs.

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  • I think you and others here are attempting to parse the sentence too literally. "Last refuge" (like "last resort") is an idiom, and, like many idioms, it does not mean what it says. – Hot Licks Aug 14 '15 at 16:25
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To me the expression has always indicated that when violence is perceived by a person to be their only remaining option they have reached the point at which they have become incompetent to do whatever it is they set out to do. It is not an insult, simply a statement that the person has reached the limit of their ability to solve a problem in a rational and reasonable way. (And,of course presumes that violence is not ever perceived as rational or reasonable)

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My humble opinion is that the line is referring to vocation. 'Violence is the Last Refuge of the Incompetent'. It is the only resort by which incompetent men can thrive. The bully, the brute, the dictator.

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  • Would your opinion change at all if you considered this expression in proximity to (and as a possible offshoot of) the much more famous remark (by Samuel Johnson, back in 1775), "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel"? – Sven Yargs Jun 15 '17 at 5:11
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The Foundation novels by Asimov were about the forces that govern populations and history. His characters are able to predict the future and then get out in front of it and achieve their aims without violence. Violence is what you use when you are backed into a corner, which you shouldn't ever be if you can predict the future.

You can also read "The Art of War" by Sun Tzu. It's filled with quotes like "The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting." and "For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill." and "To fight and conquer in all our battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting."

I mean it just goes on and on saying the same thing Asimov said. It's certainly not about fighting first. What Asimov means is that if you end up in a violent fight, you did something wrong.

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I see the problem to understanding the intended meaning of this phase as one of scope.

The phrase seems to make a pajorative generalized statement about all of humanity and violence as a thing (adverb 2?) ... when the scope of the human behavior is understood to be very contextual and situational (some what limited)....the difference in the scopes is huge and creates this ....feeling in your brain that somethings not Right....so you start breaking it down...and hear we ARE ...

This famous statement utilizes a very common method of taking a swipe at a large group of anything (usually people) by saying something that sounds logical but seems to hide key fallacies of the statement's proposition...interesting to me is statements like these when made by a nominal person....Are quite often made out of anger...a near cousin to violence...and are not planned....they almost seem to come way to naturally! Are we innately devious!?? Cheers - Tye

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