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Authored by Andre van Heerden

A proper story…is the expression of some unchanging human predicament; as a Highland lament, composed to reconcile a passionate people to a contingent misfortune, expresses all the sorrows suffered by mankind since the beginning of time.  Mine is a proper story.  Its source is in the mist-hung mountains of time past; and there is nowhere in the world where some version of it has not been told.  It is to be found among the stories of the Chinese, the Chaldeans, and the ancient Hebrews, and among the Arab and Slav peoples, and the Aztecs of Peru.  It has been told in the Greek, Latin, Celtic, and the Teutonic languages and in the tongues of those who for millennia have moved about the islands of the Pacific Ocean…it is the story of the Tower of Babel.

~Michael Oakshott in The Tower of Babel

The world of the third millennium is a modern Babel. People talk more than ever, aided by technological marvels of astonishing sophistication, yet no one seems to understand what others are saying. Language, which is meant to convey meaning, and therefore to bring people together, is no longer used to engage in dialogue, but merely to deceive, denigrate, or dump ideological prejudices on others. Everyone is talking, but no one is listening.  And that is obviously inimical to leadership on any level.

The tragedy of our ‘Modern Babel’ is revealed by how few people in our allegedly enlightened world would attach much meaning to that phrase beyond a ‘new’ or ‘up-to-date’ version of something about which they know next to nothing. Ignorance of the timeless story about the confusion of tongues and the loss of the ability to communicate is an obvious blight on the wisdom of any generation, but the impoverished understanding of the word ‘modern’ is even more insidious.

The word ‘Modern’ describes a worldview that has come to dominate every corner of our world, largely through the many astonishing material benefits that have accompanied it, and most people today would see being ‘modern’ as a good thing, obviously superior to anything that preceded it. However, Modernity has also spawned a muddle of seemingly insoluble disorders – of orientation, reason, and relationships – that menace civilization in the third millennium.

The modern mindset was and is an attempt to remove the idea of transcendent truth, goodness, and beauty from the world in favor of what the German sociologist, Max Weber, in a 1917 lecture, called a “disenchanted” world. Humankind was to sweep aside religion and tradition, and come to know and control everything through science and reason. The consequences of disenchantment have proved otherwise.

The global leadership crisis is now several decades old and shows no signs of abating, in spite of more money, time, and effort being devoted to leadership development than ever before.  The reason for the failure is the focus on symptoms instead of the problem.  Modernity itself is the cause of the demise of leadership at all levels of western society.  Leadership, understood as “inspiring people to be the best they can be in working together for the good of all”, is simply antithetical to the ideals of Modernity.

What, then, are the ideals of Modernity?  Modernity is the mindset that gave expression to the 15th century Renaissance, received further impetus from the 16th century Reformation and the 17th century Scientific Revolution, and became widely promoted in the 18th century Enlightenment. It stands on a belief that humankind, through the use of science and reason, can explain and manipulate reality, and achieve continuous progress in all areas of human endeavor. Its cultural markers are the pervasive materialism, secularism, and scientism of the West today.

In his book, Passage to Modernity, Louis Dupre, a Yale professor in the philosophy of religion, emphasizes a point often ignored by people today: “Its innovative power made Modernity, which began as a local western phenomenon, a universal project capable of forcing its theoretical and practical principles on all but the most isolated civilizations. ‘Modern’ has become the predicate of a unified world culture. The West could not have exercised such a global influence if other civilizations, however different, had not been receptive to innovation.”

Three basic ideas drove the emergence of Modernity. People tend to shy away from philosophical terms, but the meanings can be stated quite simply:

  1. Humanism – human creativity will achieve utopia.
  2. Nominalism – we make our own meaning and purpose.
  3. Voluntarism – the will has priority over the intellect, so trust your feelings.

These concepts grew out of the philosophical and theological debates of the Middle Ages, and in time, seeped into the general culture. This explosive mix of ideas gave rise to a worldview very different from those that preceded it, and it was intensified by other related developments.

The Mechanical Philosophy of Galileo, Bacon, and Descartes that helped launch the Scientific Revolution saw the world of matter as something to be probed and manipulated for the advancement of humankind. Moreover, Descartes’ notion of the isolated, autonomous self had serious implications for politics and society when related to the Nominalist denial of meaning and purpose in the world.  If the individual is cut adrift from all social ties, then family, community, and homeland are not natural realities, but just social constructs that, so the reasoning went, often impeded individual fulfillment.

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Following the calamitous 14th century, with its dynastic wars, religious crises, and the Bubonic Plague, the 15th century saw the renewal of scientific and cultural progress, with the printing revolution, the voyages of discovery, and spectacular developments in the arts.  This all provided validation for the burgeoning humanist spirit, and the Protestant Reformation gave support to the implications of nominalism and voluntarism.  Luther overthrew the principle of universal authority in religion and politics, arguing that individual conscience was sovereign in matters of faith; and Calvin swept aside the historical concerns about the spiritual and social hazards of wealth in favor of the virtues of busyness, acquisition, and thrift.

The worldview that linked medieval civilization and classical antiquity was teleological, that is, it saw the innate potential of things as being oriented towards their natural fulfillment. It understood the nature of things as definable aspects of reality, that is, the meaning and purpose of things. This worldview took the affinity between the rational order of the cosmos and the rational minds of human beings as evidence that we can know the truth and the natural good of all things.

The modern or mechanistic worldview rejects the idea of meaning and purpose in the world and insists that they are merely products of the human mind. It denies that things have specific natures, and maintains that we can reshape reality according to our own desires. It dismisses all belief in metaphysical truth and universal ethical norms and sees the individual as essentially alone and subject only to his or her own will. Its highest values are personal choice, no matter how selfish, and tolerance, even where human behavior produces suffering.

Sadly, many people are unaware that science cannot prove the validity of either of these worldviews, though both should always be tested according to their capacity to accommodate scientific fact. They are metaphysical frameworks for the interpretation and assimilation of all knowledge, logical, historical, ethical, and scientific. People invented science using metaphysical reasoning; metaphysics precedes science and determines its direction. The teleological worldview provided the inspiration and the foundations of modern science, while the mechanistic worldview merely defined modern scientific method.

all human beings are able to discuss what is good for all people everywhere, and for our world, across the bridge of human reason

Contrary to the Modern worldview, there is meaning and purpose in the world. There is a real connection between things. The world is rational and knowable by human minds, and we can know the natures of things, and therefore what is good for them, and what is bad for them. And all human beings are able to discuss what is good for all people everywhere, and for our world, across the bridge of human reason. To deny this obvious reality is to deny our humanity, and science as well.

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Aristotle’s metaphysics provided the grounds for people to rationally identify virtue, good behavior, and vice, bad behavior.  The fact that this worldview, more critically accommodating of science and technology than the mechanistic worldview, has survived to challenge the misguided socio-economic experiments of Modernity to this day, is testimony to its philosophical rigor.

Modern attempts to provide an alternative moral framework, from the Enlightenment until today, have all failed, as the moral confusion of the Postmodern West attests. Contemporary Kantians, Utilitarians, Pragmatists, Contractarians, and Emotivists all pretend that their own theory of morality holds sway, but neither they nor the misguided masses who muddle their way through life condemning the behavior of others and justifying their own, can explain the deep divisions that give rise to all the spite and speciousness of our interminable debates, all of which are essentially moral issues.

Whether the issue being debated is war, immigration, taxation, healthcare, the environment, religion, the family, the minimum wage, workers’ rights, or almost anything else, there seems to be no way of reaching a resolution.

And as Alasdair MacIntyre explained in his already classic text, After Virtue, there are very good reasons for the interminable debates that frustrate and enrage people in the Postmodern West.

For one thing, the contending arguments are generally incommensurable, that is, they are grounded in different conceptual frameworks or worldviews that cannot be rationally reconciled. The arguments might be structurally sound, with the conclusions following logically from the premises, but the moral principles from which they spring are essentially conflicting.

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For example, in the ongoing debate about globalization and the free movement of goods, finance, and people across international borders, a patriotic Frenchman and a globalist Eurocrat are never likely to find common ground. Or in a more mundane situation, in which staff and management argue over an unexpected company decision to lay off 20 percent of the workers shortly before Christmas, many people would see it as objectively wrong, while those benefitting from the move might easily justify it in utilitarian or libertarian terms.

it has always been recognized that the ideals of liberty and equality are inherently incompatible

At an even more fundamental level, it has always been recognized that the ideals of liberty and equality are inherently incompatible, and that their respective supporters will always be in disagreement. How, for example, could they ever agree on the meaning of the concept of justice, and therefore, the concept of leadership, as well as all the related concepts? The architects of the French Revolution tried to overcome this nettlesome reality by writing the concept of ‘Fraternity’ into their slogan.  Needless to say, it didn’t work.

In spite of this incommensurability, all sides in the shouting bouts we call debates plainly believe they are right and everyone else is wrong. That is, even though most will not admit their inconsistency, they all at least appear to believe that there are objective standards, which all people are duty-bound to observe.  Regardless of the conflicting ideas, Modernity has promoted, people on all sides still feel the need to justify their moral choices rationally i.e. according to objective standards, which Modernity inconsistently persists in denying.

most people in the western world now default to a relativist understanding of morality known as Emotivism, in which personal feelings decide what is right and what is wrong

A shared moral framework is an essential prerequisite for rational dialogue, and the pre-modern West had that in the synthesis of Aristotelian virtue ethics and the Judeo-Christian worldview. Modernity’s rejection of that synthesis ushered in all the conflicting ideas that reduce dialogue to diatribe, and most people in the western world now default to a relativist understanding of morality known as Emotivism, in which personal feelings decide what is right and what is wrong. This subjective, sentimental, and capricious morality of the individual will has predictably served only to ensure that contemporary debate has no restraint and nowhere to go.

In the Emotivist culture of the Postmodern West, the detached, autonomous self, nihilistic, narcissistic, and anti-intellectual, naturally feels a sense of alienation, and the consequent sense of loss and isolation. Such an individual is easily provoked or incited, and inherently unleadable.

The social dysfunction and political mayhem we see today start in the heads of the people who make up our society, and there is no one who is not infected by the ideas of Modernity to some degree or other.  Modernity is all-pervasive and constantly reinforced through academia, the media, corporate scheming, state schooling, and the suffocating slough of bureaucracy.

There is simply no way of escaping the reality: without a shared understanding of what it means to be human, and the Good that all people should seek, there can be no possibility of rationally resolving the many socio-political and economic disputes that fragment western societies.

A world in which individuals decide for themselves the kind of morality they will commit to is a world destined to become one like that which Hobbes described – “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.

No wonder people are becoming disenchanted with disenchantment. The climate of cynicism, despair, and hate that characterizes the modern Babel, has blinded most people to the erosion of civilized standards and the nearness of new tyrannies.  Cynicism, despair, and hate are unimpeachable evidence of a lack of leadership because they arise where people are fearful and suspicious, and predisposed to destructive behavior directed against self or others.

History shows that civilized society depends on the polar opposites of cynicism, despair, and hate, which are faith, hope, and love. And it depends on those foundational attitudes because they are the essential qualities needed to inspire people to be the best that they can be in working together for the good of all. Can it ever be said with enough emphasis that that is precisely what leaders are supposed to do?

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About the author, Andre van Heerden

ANDRE heads the corporate leadership program The Power of Integrity, and is the author of three books on leadership, Leaders and Misleaders, An Educational Bridge for Leaders, and Leading Like You Mean It.

He has unique qualifications for addressing the leadership crisis. Since studying law at Rhodes University, he has been a history teacher, a deputy headmaster, a soldier, a refugee, an advertising writer, a creative director, an account director on multinational brands, a marketing consultant, and a leadership educator.

He has worked in all business categories on blue-chip brands like Toyota, Ford, Jaguar, Canon, American Express, S C Johnson, Kimberley Clark, and John Deere, while leadership coaching has seen him help leaders and aspirant leaders in Real Estate, Retail, the Science Sector, Local Government, Education, Food Safety, Banking, and many other areas.

You can read more about Andre van Heerden, his books, and previous articles at his homepage The Power of Integrity

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