Since we encounter beauty in the world outside ourselves, the intense feelings it inspires in us makes it a constant challenge to the hubris and self-absorption to which human beings are prone. And this should lead us to regard life and the world with a certain reverence. Yet, as with truth and goodness, beauty can also often be seen as a judgment against our own inadequacies and failures. Hence the fairly common phenomenon of nihilistic rage that lashes out and violates truth, goodness, and beauty. The contemporary celebration of the deceitful, the cruel, and the hideous in postmodern art and literature (think only of Tracey Emin’s unmade bed, Manzoni’s cans of faeces, or the gratuitous violence that daily assails television screens) gives expression to this irrational resentment.
Paradoxically, it is possible to recognise beauty even in the squalor, pain, and decay we see in the world. The empirical fact of the tension between suffering and redemption that marks the human condition can be expressed aesthetically in ways that point to the ultimate triumph of good in this world of sorrows. As Roger Scruton explains in his outstanding reflection on Beauty in the Oxford University Press publication of the same name:
“T S Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ describes the modern city as a soulless desert, but it does so with images and allusions that affirm what the city denies. Our very ability to make this judgment is the final disproof of it. If we can grasp the emptiness of modern life, this is because art points to another way of being, and Eliot’s poem makes this other way available.”
Just as the natural splendour of a waterfall or an Alpine peak can arouse in us what in German is called Sehnsucht, a deep spiritual yearning, so too does true art, that is, works like Vermeer’s The Milkmaid or Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, that appeal to our higher nature through the transformational power of beauty. The vision of redemption, the assurance of hope, the inchoate yearning for existential fulfilment, all find expression through the mysterious reality of beauty.
The implications for the meaning of leadership are profound. The essence of meaning, as Aristotle told us, is form – not mere shape, but the very nature of a thing, that which makes it what it is, its truth, goodness, and beauty in itself as a part of Being, the totality of existence. True education can only be built on the sure foundation of meaning, enabling us to understand ourselves, others, and the cosmos, and all the relationships within that potential harmony. And need it be reiterated that leadership grows out of true education and not skills training?
Leadership, in the first instance, is built on truth, a total commitment to seeing things as they are in reality. Without such a commitment, concepts like justice, vision, strategy, and mission, have no meaning. In the second instance, leadership must seek human flourishing, that is, the good of all, an impossible task unless one has a clear and compelling grasp of what constitutes the good of human beings. The leadership ideals of service and sacrifice that flow from those principles are inspiring and profoundly pleasing to the soul, even in failure. In other words, in its true form, leadership is a thing of great beauty.
In her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Team of Rivals”, Doris Kearns Goodwin relates the story of how some forty years after Lincoln’s assassination, Tolstoy was asked by villagers in a remote region of the Caucasus to tell them about the great leaders of history. He spoke about Alexander, Caesar, Frederick the Great, and Napoleon, but in the end, the person the villagers wanted to hear about was Lincoln. Goodwin quotes the great novelist:
“This little incident proves how largely the name of Lincoln is worshipped throughout the world and how legendary his personality has become. Now, why was Lincoln so great that he overshadows all other national heroes? He really was not a great general like Napoleon or Washington; he was not such a skillful statesman as Gladstone or Frederick the Great, but his supremacy expresses itself altogether in his peculiar moral power and in the greatness of his character.”
Lincoln continues to inspire people all around the world because of the splendour of his vision, his grace under pressure, and his profound compassion and generosity of spirit for all people, even his enemies. His leadership was a thing of beauty because it was built on truth and goodness, as could be discerned by the people of any culture.
In the moral confusion of the postmodern West, too many people have been misled to believe that truth, goodness, and beauty, and therefore leadership, are in the eye of the beholder. They fail to see that their subjectivist mindset logically leaves not only the transcendentals, but also leadership, impossible to define, and therefore, impossible to achieve. Is it any wonder that we have a global leadership crisis? This socially destructive mindset is at the root of the existential despair choking western society.
Human flourishing is beautiful, as is the seemingly interminable struggle to achieve it; human degradation, on the other hand, is ugly, as is the cynicism that accepts it as inevitable. The inescapable question for any society is whether it is a thing of beauty, a celebration of human flourishing, and therefore a culture worthy of transmission to succeeding generations, and also adoption by immigrants. It is a question about identity, who we are, vision, the fulfilment we look towards, and virtue, the positive principles on which alone we can build a truly beautiful society. Not for nothing did Dostoevsky have Prince Myskin say in The Idiot:
“Beauty will save the world.”