Nothing but virtue is more splendid than liberty if indeed liberty can ever properly be severed from virtue. For to all right-thinking men, it is clear that true liberty issues from no other source. Since all agree that virtue is the highest good in life and that it alone can remove the hateful yoke of slavery, it has been the opinion of philosophers that men should die, if need arose, for the sake of virtue, which is the only reason for living. But virtue can never be fully attained without liberty…and though slavery under other people may seem the more to be pitied, in reality, slavery to the vices is far more wretched.
~On Liberty and Tyranny from Policraticus by John of Salisbury (1120-1180)
How ironic that the most technologically advanced civilization in history needs to be taught how to promote the flourishing of all people in any community, by a scholar from Medieval Europe. That widely misunderstood society was disdained by 18th century Enlightenment thinkers as the Dark Ages, and they consigned a 1000 years of history, from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance, to obscurity. They condemned the modern world to the ignorance and ideology that beset us still today.
That democracy, the Rule of Law, civic freedom, and responsibility are in crisis in the third decade of the Third Millennium is a truism. The reason for this is the misguided belief that technical expertise and political power will solve all our problems without us having to address the cultural decadence and societal dysfunction that afflict the postmodern West. Technology and power typically usher in tyranny; a sick culture and vice-addicted citizens lubricate the power grab.
Leadership means inspiring people to be the best they can be in working together for the good of all. It is lacking in our troubled world because learning, liberty, and love, the essential conditions of leadership, have been willfully corrupted by ideology, bondage, and self-absorption.
Human flourishing, the essential purpose of leadership, depends on education i.e. the proper learning that enables us to know the truth about ourselves and our world. Learning is the on-going preparation that equips a leader with prudentia, that is, practical wisdom, and solertia, which is clear-minded judgment when confronted by the unexpected. It is also important in shaping a humane worldview, without which leadership is so easily corrupted.
In a 1970 essay entitled, Why Did We Destroy Europe, the physical chemist, and polymath, Michael Polanyi, reflected on the destructive contagion of ideology and the barbarous nature of war in the 20th century. While he recognized the spectacular achievements of scientific rationalism, he saw in its characteristic scepticism a crisis of human reason that gave rise to a debilitating nihilism. The cynical, pseudo-scientific ideologies of Marxism and Nazism sprang from nihilism.
Nihilism, the worldview that says one’s own will is all that matters in life, is an obvious lie, the result of either deficient education, corrupt character, or ideological pigheadedness. The purpose of a rational mind is to seek truth, and blind accumulation of knowledge is insufficient. Coherence requires a context, a metaphysical framework, a properly reasoned worldview to integrate all the knowledge acquired.
Ideology is the antithesis of learning because its object is not truth but power. It denies that the natural purpose of intellect is truth, and imposes a cynical utilitarian attitude that seeks to silence anything that exposes the lies it propagates.
And as Solzhenitsyn noted, violence and the lie are intimately related. Trying to crush true learning, that is, the human quest for truth is misleadership, deceitful, and inhuman.
Contrast this with the example of Boethius, one of the great leaders of learning in history. Born into the Roman nobility shortly after the fall of Rome in 476, Boethius grew up under the Ostrogoth regime of Theodoric, and entered politics early, becoming a senator by the age of 25. He tried to reconcile the civilised Roman tradition with the barbarian culture of the conquerors, and was initially esteemed by Theodoric, and appointed to public office. At age 42, he was controversially charged with treason, imprisoned, tortured, and executed two years later.
In this time of upheaval, Boethius saw learning as the key to the future, writing manuals on philosophy, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy, with the intention of transmitting Greco-Roman culture to new generations. His opus magnum, The Consolation of Philosophy, extols the importance of learning and the life of virtue, especially in the face of suffering and injustice, and was massively influential in the recovery of learning in Medieval Europe, and is still relevant today.
In the moral confusion of a materialistic age that is too afraid to ask the ultimate questions, we cannot escape the fact that the human being is the only animal that can transcend nature.
We are not simply part of nature, the immense impersonal world of things, but actually possess the ability to express symbolically through language and culture not just our inner lives, but also the external realities we encounter beyond ourselves.
Although human beings remain powerfully influenced by innate animal urges, we are continually driven to develop social mores and structures that help us live in accordance with our rational nature. Intellect, the power of abstract, conceptual reasoning transcends perceptual animal intelligence, and gives us a considerable measure of control over nature. And that includes our own nature.
Emboldened by the intelligibility of nature, yet deeply unsettled by our limitations in knowing things as we feel we need to, we try to discern meaning and purpose in the world. Each one of us is a person whose complexity defies technical explanation, and whose innermost self is a mystery – to even ourselves. No wonder on-going learning is essential to human flourishing.
But learning, as opposed to ideological conditioning, requires liberty. Free will, the faculty of personal choice that transcends the determinism of animal instinct, is a natural concomitant of intellect. It is the ever-present urge to self-expression that challenges us in every moment to decide what we will do. Decision-making in any situation, by definition, presupposes human freedom.