Disenchanted in Babel

–Modernity & the Demise of Leadership

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 civilisation 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 favour 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 endeavour.  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, emphasises 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 civilisations.  ‘Modern’ has become the predicate of a unified world culture.  The West could not have exercised such a global influence if other civilisations, 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 fulfilment.

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 favour of the virtues of busyness, acquisition, and thrift.

The worldview that linked medieval civilisation and classical antiquity was teleological, that is, it saw the innate potential of things as being oriented towards their natural fulfilment.  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 behaviour 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.


Andre van Heerden
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.

SOLD OUT! JOIN OUR WAITING LIST! It's not a virtual event. It's not a conference. It's not a seminar, a meeting, or a symposium. It's not about attracting a big crowd. It's not about making a profit, but rather about making a real difference. LEARN MORE HERE



  1. Outstanding lesson learned here, thanks for sharing!
    We are in a difficult era of the world economy, in which many entrepreneurs have suffered (and will continue to suffer) the consequences of crises that have heavily reduced profits, jeopardized the survival of companies and threatened employment continuity. It is their responsibility, despite current difficulties, to strive to restore trust, inspire hope and keep life alive flame of faith that nourishes the daily search for good. Indeed, it is appropriate to remember that faith is not only the flame that ignites the hearts of believers, but it is also the driving force of history of man.
    Entrepreneurs are called to participate in the contemporary economic and financial world in the light of the principles of human dignity and the common good. They, the members of their respective companies and the various interlocutors must undertake to act, but in compliance with a series of practical principles, the only ones capable of guiding them in the service of the common good. Among these principles, the satisfaction of the needs of the world with goods that are objectively good and truly useful without neglecting, in a spirit of solidarity, the needs of the poor and vulnerable people stand out; the principle of organizing work in companies in full respect of human dignity; the principle of subsidiarity, which promotes the spirit of initiative and the development of the skills of collaborators – which can be considered as “co-entrepreneurs”; finally, the principle of sustainable wealth creation and its fair distribution among the various interlocutors of the company.

  2. Andre – Oh my goodness, thank you for this thought-provoking piece. While I don’t agree that personal choice is a negative thing (although, like anything, it can certainly have negative consequences when not accompanied by integrity), you’ve given me a great deal to think about. You’ve also reminded me that I rarely read work that demands my attention in the same way yours does and that I have, perhaps, become a bit atrophied in my ability to read rich texts such as yours! It’s a muscle I don’t want to lose and I appreciate you forcing me to work a bit harder than I normally do to get to the heart of the conversation.

    • Thank you, Kimberly – your kind words are greatly appreciated. The point about personal choice is just that it becomes destructive when it is cut adrift from the inescapable reality of human relationships – in family, history, tradition, culture, and society at large. The isolated, autonomous self of Modernity is a myth – whether we like it or not, we are all products of history and culture, and that is why we need to seek the truth that allows us to confront the negative aspects of our backgrounds. The modern attempt to trash classic literature and philosophy is closing off the wisdom of the ages to successive generations, and instead of drawing the many lessons available from the millennia-long conversation, they have to start from scratch and make the same old mistakes all over again. For better or worse, we all drive our own education – teachers and parents can only encourage, guide, and support – and the foundation of any education is the books that are read. Once again, I really appreciate your comment.