“Our five bodily senses make us adequate to the lowest level of being – inanimate matter. But they can supply nothing more than masses of sense data, to ‘make sense’ of which we require abilities or capabilities of a different order. We may call them “intellectual senses”. Without them we should be unable to recognise form, pattern, regularity, harmony, rhythm, and meaning, not to mention life, consciousness, and self-awareness…Beethoven’s musical abilities, even in deafness, were incomparably greater than mine, and the difference did not lie in the sense of hearing; it lay in the mind.”
–E F Schumacher in A Guide for the Perplexed
In 1977, the widely influential economist and author of the internationally successful Small is Beautiful, E F Schumacher, published A Guide for the Perplexed, a crippling critique of materialism and an exhortation for the proper development of human potential. In his own words, “…through school and university I had been given maps of life and knowledge on which there was hardly a trace of many of the things that I most cared about and that seemed to me to be of the greatest possible importance to the conduct of my life”.
The title of his book echoed the famous treatise by the great Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, who had sought to provide clarity for people thinking about the meaning and purpose of life, and the practical effects on attitudes and behaviour. At the risk of being accused of outrageous conceit, I too have appropriated the title as I seek to expose the poisonous roots of the leadership crisis by using the wisdom of the ages to clear away the moral confusion that covers them.
“What moral confusion?” the cynic immediately asks. The answers to that disingenuous question could fill a book of Tolstoyan proportions, but let us content ourselves with a few choice examples drawn from politics and business:
Genocide is an everyday reality in Syria, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, and Myanmar, while a strong possibility of genocide threatens many other nations. The refusal of western democracies to intervene, just 70 years after the Holocaust and Stalin’s Terror, exposes their promises of a brave new globalized world order as either idiotic or evil.
In 2015, when Swedish foreign minister, Margot Wallström, criticised Saudi Arabia’s subjugation of women, the Saudis withdrew their ambassador and denied visas to Swedish business. Sweden, the world’s 12th largest arms exporter, has sales to Saudi Arabia worth $1.3 billion, and 30 CEOs made their displeasure known. Outside Sweden, the western media barely covered the story, and Sweden’s EU allies offered no support.
Some 84 million people, most presumably hoping to have their prejudices confirmed, watched the recent televised Presidential Non-Debate between two notorious twisters of truth. Perhaps the most heavily burdened workers on the night were the hordes of fact-checkers, who themselves required further scrutiny by fact-checker-checkers.
A recent paper in The Journal of Democracy reveals an emerging openness to totalitarian rule: 32 percent of Americans of all ages believe it would be better to have a “strong leader” unburdened by responsibility to the legislature and the electorate, 35 percent of wealthy young Americans believe it would be a good thing for the army to take over the country, and only 32 percent of millennials think civil rights are essential in a democracy.
In the business world, the insatiable appetite of investors for ever-larger dividends and buybacks is forcing large U.S. companies to pay out more cash than ever, starving research and development, and hamstringing their future earnings and the country’s economic growth.
Today, overstressed, underpaid, and insecure white collar workers are confined in cube-farms, tethered by company sanctioned technology, deluged by 200+ emails a day, and strait-jacketed by command and control managerial regimes, their every move monitored by CCTV, Smartphones, Google, and Facebook.
Now if you believe that the purpose of leadership is human flourishing, which naturally entails the proper stewardship of the environment, then all these absurdities, as well as the catalogue of moral catastrophes of which they are but a small sampling, are indicative of misleadership replacing leadership. What does the wisdom of the ages have to say about the proper responses to these brazen assaults on civilised society? Let us consider them in the order in which they are presented above.
In regard to genocide, even the utilitarians can surely agree with the Roman poet, Horace, who observed that “Your own safety is at stake when your neighbor’s wall is ablaze.” But the flourishing of humanity makes more obvious demands. These words from Hannah Arendt highlight the hypocrisy of embracing our obligation to help refugees, while ignoring our obligation to defend those being butchered in their homes: “Yet in the light of recent events it is possible to say that even slaves still belonged to some sort of human community; their labour was needed, used, and exploited, and this kept them within the pale of humanity. To be a slave was after all to have a distinctive character, a place in society – more than the abstract nakedness of being human and nothing but human. Not the loss of specific rights, then, but the loss of a community willing and able to guarantee any rights whatsoever, has been the calamity that has befallen ever-increasing numbers of people.”
In the case of Margot Wallstrom, western governments would have been better counselled by the Roman historian Sallust, writing in The Conspiracy of Catiline: “Initially, it was ambition rather than greed that motivated men, and that flaw can easily be mistaken for a virtue. Recognition, official appointments, and authority are sought after by both good people and bad, except the former works with integrity, while the latter readily stoops to cunning and duplicity. Greed is another thing entirely – it comes down to a love of money, the mark of a fool. Greed poisons the mind of man and can ruin him both physically and morally. Once set loose, greed can never be contained: the have-nots burn for what they are without, and the wealthy always want more.”