Disenchanted in Babel

–Modernity & the Demise of Leadership

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.

Aristotle’s metaphysics provided the grounds for people to rationally identify virtue, good behaviour, and vice, bad behaviour.  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 rigour.

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 behaviour 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.

For example, in the ongoing debate about globalisation 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.

At an even more fundamental level, it has always been recognised 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.

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 starts 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 civilised 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?


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.

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  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.