The idea for this blog flowed from the writing of the book “Leaders & Misleaders – the art of leading like you mean it”.

The tension between leadership and misleadership in the workplace, politics, and our communities affects us all, and misleaders currently seem to have the upper hand. This blog hopes to reverse the trend by boosting awareness and understanding through the sharing of personal experience of leadership and misleadership in the workplace and beyond.

Each fortnight a new issue will be introduced by an article or a brief insight into the leadership challenge. You are invited to share your comments, experiences, and opinions.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

What can Plato teach us today?

By Andre van Heerden

How the corruption of language hurts us

Josef Pieper (1904 - 1997) was a leading German philosopher, whose views strongly reflected the influence of St. Thomas Aquinas and Plato. After studying philosophy, law, and sociology at the universities of Berlin and M√ľnster, Pieper worked as a sociologist and freelance writer, and later held the position of ordinary professor of philosophical anthropology at the University of Munster from 1950 to 1976. Thereafter, he continued to lecture at the university as professor emeritus until 1996. Pieper’s thought has earned great respect throughout the academic world among people of widely differing philosophical standpoints. This article looks at how he links ancient wisdom with a serious on-going modern controversy.

In seeking answers to the breakdown of civilisation in the twentieth century, the German Thomist philosopher, Josef Pieper turned to the greatest thinker in history. He was deeply impressed by the prescience of Plato in seeing the smooth talk of the Sophists as the seductive illusion of the political process, enabling a fraudulent arrogation of power from the legitmate authority. Pieper found that when public discourse is vitiated by the undermining of truth, it becomes a valuable tool in the hands of the power-seekers and totalitarians.

In its exercise by unscrupulous politicians, the abuse of language is more commonly known as propaganda. This now all-too-familiar practice is especially dangerous when democracy is under siege, as it is in our day.

However, Pieper made it clear that the use of propaganda is by no means confined to totalitarian regimes. It is in evidence wherever an ideological faction, a special interest, a lobby group, or any powerful organisation or corporation employs the word as its weapon of choice. He noted that the word could be used to intimidate in many ways other than the threat of political persecution. Defamation, public ridicule, political correctness, and reducing someone to the status of non-person, are all instances of how the word can be deployed to destroy lives.

Pieper saw the common element as the degrading of language into an instrument of rape. That it does violence surreptitiously was demonstrated by Plato drawing on his personal experience with the Sophists of his day. Plato’s lesson says that the abuse of political power is intimately related to the corruption of the word, which actually provides the fertile ground in which it can grow. The surest way to discern the hidden potential for a totalitarian takeover is by being aware of the public misuse of language.

The humiliation of man by man through the acts of physical violence, like forced labour, torture, beatings, and murder, has its origin, where things appear more benign, in that almost indiscernible instant when the word loses its dignity. And the dignity of the word amounts to nothing more than the fact that it can do what nothing else can, that is, it can convey meaning based on reality, the way things actually are. When in the place of authentic reality a bogus reality is set up, then it becomes well nigh impossible to discern the truth.

Pieper explained how Plato sweated over his philosophical labours for more than fifty years, always returning to the same question: what is it that makes the Sophists so dangerous? He finally wrote one last dialogue, “Sophist”, in which he expounded on the fact that the Sophists set out to manufacture a fictitious reality. Pieper was not alone when he expressed his concerns that the Platonic nightmare has a terrifying relevance in the modern world.

Public opinion has been impoverished because people no longer know where to find the truth. And most are not even inclined to look for it, deceived and manipulated as they are into going along with the fictitious reality created by the power-mongers of our day through the corruption of language.

Pieper summed up Plato’s position in three statements: first, a meaningful human life requires, as far as possible, to be able to understand all things as they actually are, and to live and act in accordance with this reality, this truth; secondly, the potential of all people can only be brought to fruition by access and receptivity to truth, and society can only be sustained by a commitment to truth; thirdly, the truth lives and grows naturally in human relationships where there is free and open communication. Truth has to be promoted in dialogue, in discussion, in conversation, because its dwelling place is language, or the word.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The New Barbarism by Andre van Heerden

The most cursory perusal of the headlines from a selection of newspapers around the western world today illuminates the grim realities of a civilisation disintegrating: all manner of social dysfunction, crimes of sickening depravity, sensual gratification of epic proportions, financial prodigality once considered the preserve of banana republics, serial corruption in both corporate and government sectors, staggeringly ill-conceived military adventurism, and a voyeuristic obsession with supine celebrity. We seem to have lost the ability and the will to live together in harmony and to run our affairs responsibly.

Emblematic of the circumstances we find ourselves in are the many ugly episodes of bullying among schoolchildren, which instantly stream into cyberspace to entertain the millions who have nothing better to do with their time. Bullying of course, has plagued human society from the start, but what unsettles one in our allegedly advanced stage of civilisation are the shocking levels of demonic cruelty in souls so young. Innocence has been shattered long before any meaningful worldview might have been inculcated in these culturally deprived malcontents, and before any balanced character formation might have taken place. They are condemned to a life of barbarism before they even know the possibilities and pitfalls of human life. Jose Ortega Y Gasset many years ago penned the classic definition of barbarism:

Barbarism is the absence of standards to which an appeal can be made.

To what standard might an appeal be made in the face of these youthful thugs? The Ten Commandments? The Beatitudes? Honour? Virtue? The Golden Rule? The Categorical Imperative? The happiness of the greatest number? They would not know what you are talking about. Our brave new world that has swept aside all standards now finds the new barbarians within its gates. We have wilfully been producing them for generations, and are now living with the consequences of our folly.

Sixty years ago, in a 46-page work of genius called The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis warned western society that it was actively undermining the very qualities that it held up as essential for success and well-being: drive, dynamism, self-sacrifice, and creativity. Lewis’s insight and eloquence were seldom more brilliantly deployed:

In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

Of course, while we wring our hands, not knowing what to do in the deluge of dysfunction destroying lives daily all around us, most people are risibly ignorant that the warning was even given, let alone unheeded. Throughout the last century, astute observers saw the signs of the impending collapse of western civilisation. Many of them also prescribed the essential remedy – a return to the virtues of Athens, Jerusalem, and Rome, on which our flawed but once progressively humane culture was built.

Culture is transmitted by education, but the rejection of our culture by nihilistic elites has entailed the dismantling of our education tradition and its replacement by skills-based vocational training and ideological brainwashing. Social control has been the prime objective of state schooling since its introduction in the 19th century, though the elitist practice has been with us for much longer. It was the sage, Lao Tse, who some two and a half thousand years ago counselled:

Empty their heads and fill their bellies, weaken their minds and strengthen their sinews. To teach the people is to ruin the state.

That is the mentality that has spawned our malaise. In the inevitable downward spiral into meaninglessness, young people today are supposed to find that vital human quality called hope in consumerism, promiscuity, and licence. It is a spurious quest, and the rage of the deceived generations that erupts with ever-increasing frequency is but a symptom of the disease that afflicts them – the absence of answers to the ultimate questions posed by Kant:

Who am I? What may I hope? What ought I to do?

The once fertile fields of our civilisation are now choked by the weeds of the new barbarism, and there will be no quick fix. Tragically, less than civilised expedients like a return to capital punishment and more ruthless forms of incarceration will almost certainly gather popular approval as the incidence of social pathology worsens, but they will not eradicate the toxic crop we have sown. Only education can do that.

The bottom line is this: we have to stop filling the heads of young people with nihilistic nonsense. Can you cure an alcoholic by giving him alcohol? Can you cure a junkie by feeding him methamphetamine? Well, you can be sure you won’t cure raging despair in a youth by feeding him nihilism, telling him there is no meaning in life beyond self-gratification. The great treasure of western civilisation is the literature, art, music, architecture, history, philosophy and science that have sought the truth that enables the sovereign human soul to discern the meaning of life. Ideology, in many different guises, has tried to obscure and even destroy that treasure. The future will be determined by whether we are able to restore it.

Eighty years ago, G.K. Chesterton gave an unerringly accurate description of our condition:

People are inundated, blinded, deafened, and mentally paralysed by a flood of vulgar and tasteless externals, leaving them no time for leisure, thought, or creation from within themselves.

The new barbarism is upon us. Who are the parents, teachers, and business and community leaders who will help to turn the tide?