April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
T S Eliot in The Wasteland
THE WASTELAND ARTICULATED the disillusionment that followed the First World War. Weaving in archetypal symbols of infertility, barren landscapes, the modern city, sterile sexual relations, and ritual death and rebirth, Eliot summoned fragments – words, deeds, reflections, feelings – to counter the cultural devastation, fragments he later reconciled in Four Quartets.
[bctt tweet=”Leadership, like life itself, stands on memory. ” username=”bizmastersglobal”]
The leadership void is a consequence of the loss of memory. The Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate, Elie Wiesel, asked rhetorically, “What would the future of man be if it were devoid of memory?” The contemporary West seems determined to answer that question, as its wilful repudiation of the past has inflicted a severe cultural amnesia on successive generations, who neither appreciate nor appropriate the intellectual, aesthetic, and ethical achievements of a once confident civilisation.
The demographic winter in Europe, together with what is either a refusal or an inability to assimilate immigrants, makes this obliteration of culture nothing less than suicidal. The past is now associated with pejorative terms like ‘old-fashioned’, ‘unscientific’, and ‘traditional’, and people uncritically clutch at whatever can be marketed as ‘new’, ‘original’, or ‘creative’. Yet those latter terms lose their meaning without the context of the past, and deprived of memory, we would have no idea of whether they were indeed new, original, or creative.
The truth is that many of the social, political, and economic blunders committed today have all happened many times before. A society is in this respect the same as the individual. When, for whatever reason, we cease to hold in consciousness the past that has made us what we are, we are in danger of societal or personal annihilation.
In spite of the advances of neuroscience, memory remains an essentially mysterious phenomenon. The popular idea of memory as a filing cabinet or a neural database is misleading in the light of scientific advances. We now know that memory is far more complex, and that it is located not in any particular part of the brain, but rather in many different areas working in unison to present the memories that inform human action.
We also know that memory differs in quality and capacity among individuals, that it can be developed and trained, that it more often than not tends to weaken with old age, and that it can, for many reasons, be lost. Without memory, experience would mean nothing, and notions like vision or progress would have no cogent criteria. Relationships, the realities that give meaning to our lives, are only possible on the basis of sound memory. Knowledge, beliefs, acknowledged values and shared ethical commitments, as well as aspirations, all essential constituents of culture, ultimately depend on memory. Education itself is nothing more than the transmission of these cultural guidelines to new generations.
Intellect and free will lift human beings out of the purely animal life that is lived in an eternal present. Gifted in this way, human beings necessarily live on a continuum composed of past, present, and future. Memory, the storehouse of intellect, is vitally important in meeting the challenge posed by this multi-dimensional reality. It provides the content for a person’s intellect, laying the foundations for conscience, self-knowledge, and self-appraisal. To erode the memory is to enfeeble the mind.
The undeniable practical nitty-gritty related to all of this stares us in the face every day. Personal résumés, company histories, performance reviews, work-in-progress reports, minutes of meetings, financial records, medical files, and so on, underline our utter dependence on the past for the knowledge that enables us to tackle the future. And how on earth have so many allowed themselves to be convinced that these largely routine developments of the recent past are somehow more important than issues that determine the very nature of the society that facilitates their ongoing functioning? Issues like morality and justice, freedom and responsibility, knowledge and education, which inevitably shape the worldviews, and therefore the behaviour, of managers and employees, for better or for worse.
Many years ago, as an advertising copywriter chasing creative concepts to shake up the market, I quickly discovered that it was superior general knowledge that made some writers and art directors better than others. I came to think of people as having cultural reservoirs from which they drew daily in dealing with the challenges of life. Years later, I read E D Hirsch’s book, “The Knowledge Deficit”, in which he puts rather more meat on the concept of a cultural reservoir, what he termed “cultural literacy”. Psychology affirms that much of the information needed to understand a book is not provided by the book itself, but has to come from the general knowledge of the reader. This recalls Georg Lichtenberg’s famous warning that “A book is a mirror; if an ape looks into it, an apostle is hardly likely to look out.”
In an appendix to “Cultural Literacy”, Hirsch listed some 4000 concepts he believed Americans should know in order to qualify as literate, concepts like 1066, 1914-1918, Achilles Heel, crossing the Rubicon, don’t put the cart before the horse, Doppler effect, King Lear, Lilliputian, Pyrrhic victory, nuclear fission, parody, pre-emptive strike, proton, Renoir, Zeitgeist, thirty pieces of silver, and it takes two to tango. It should be obvious how much of this is being thrown away, and why shallow thinking is characteristic of society today.
Western civilization, for all its many flaws, has given rise to the greatest socio-political freedoms, the most widespread prosperity, the astonishing achievements of science, and an artistic and literary legacy celebrated in every other culture, all based on a decisive understanding of the nature of the human person. Through all the tumult and tragedies of history, freedom and creativity in the West were grounded in the dignity of the human person as created in the image of God, that is, gifted with the power of reason and free will.
That dignity underpinned human rights, and ensured the slow, but progressive demise of slavery and despotic government, and made the social injustice that accompanied industrialization ultimately untenable, except where western principles were cast aside, as by Nazi neo-paganism or Soviet atheism.
In recent decades, coinciding with the obliteration of culture, the foundational principle of the dignity of the person has come under attack from academics and socio-political elites through a process of semantic corruption, subverting the meaning of the term. Building on the rationally untenable mechanical worldview of modern philosophy, these cultural saboteurs have insinuated the idea that human dignity consists in creatively defying nature, and remaking the world any way we choose. The seductive lie at the heart of this perverse ideology is that freedom means choosing whatever we desire rather than choosing what is good for the community, the environment, and ourselves. It substitutes values for virtue.
That is why the family and community life are collapsing and social dysfunction is rife, that is why we have an environmental crisis, and that is why our political and economic expedients no longer work. That these developments are driven by political, corporate, and academic elites is beyond question, and the despair one encounters in every corner of society indicates that the program is well-advanced. And it is utterly dependent on the loss of memory engineered by those same elites.
The narcissistic, ironic detachment stupefying vast swathes of the populace did not simply appear out of nowhere. It too has a history; it too can be explained. And it cries out for leaders to redeem it, or tragically, waits invitingly for misleaders to exploit it. No memory ultimately means no past, no identity, no learning, no imagination, and the gradual erosion of humanity that will turn our much-vaunted technological sophistication from a civilizational blessing to an existential curse.
Leaders in business, that is those who still believe that creative human beings are better than docile functionaries, should be active in the revitalization of memory in society. If you want people who can think with real insight about the business, people who are alive to the inspiration leaders are required to provide, people who are good team players because they are responsive in relationships, people who have the character and commitment that have always been the seedbed of achievement in any field, then you want people in whom memory is vibrant and constantly enhanced.
Pay no attention to the specious popular argument that the Internet has relieved us of the burden of memorization. You cannot Google something you are unaware of, and you cannot get Wikipedia to engage in discussions and debates on your behalf. Studies of genius indicate that exceptional intellect is due less to innate ability than it is to the development of a powerful memory. It seems that committing tables, dates, speeches, and poetry to the youthful memory had much greater educational significance than anyone ever realized.
[bctt tweet=”Leaders shape culture, drawing on the great ideas associated with human flourishing. ” via=”no”]Misleaders pervert culture, obscuring truth and subverting ideas. Ideas live in the memory. That’s why leadership stands on memory.