Confronted by the challenging dichotomies of truth and untruth, right and wrong, good and evil, desire and restraint, love and hate, and the ever-present tug of conscience, we can understand why John of Salisbury saw liberty and virtue as inseparable. Nelson Mandela, like many other great leaders, concurred entirely: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
Resisting bondage of self or others is the very essence of freedom. And it is inspirational, as countless examples throughout history demonstrate. Wiktoria Goryńska, a Polish artist recognised for her woodcuts, was also an active member of the underground resistance against the Nazi occupation during World War II. She was captured and executed at Ravensbrück concentration camp in 1945, leaving an enduring legacy of learning, liberty, love, and leadership. And history is full of such inspirational struggles.
In The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn told the story of the kulaks, land-owning peasants, in the USSR: “It sometimes happened that they transported ex-kulaks out into the tundra or the swampy forests, let them loose, and forgot about them. Why keep count when you’d taken them there to die? …Now that the mysteriously wise leaders had dismissed them – without horses, without ploughs, without fishing tackle, without guns – this hard-working and stubborn race of men, armed perhaps with a few axes and shovels, began the hopeless fight for life in conditions scarcely easier than in the Stone Age. And in defiance of the economic laws of socialism, some of the settlements not only survived, but became rich and vigorous…The things that could’ve been done with such people if they had been allowed to live and develop freely!”
Of course, the forms of bondage in the postmodern West are more subtle. Drugs, promiscuity, narcissism, consumerism, the managerial state, and the reign of experts are all forms of bondage to which our supine society has submitted, and the dark shadow of totalitarianism haunts us again. Technological bondage, arising from a reluctance to acknowledge the risks and trade-offs imposed in the name of utilitarian efficiency, is particularly pernicious.
The moral confusion of the postmodern West derives from the rationally bankrupt Enlightenment ideal of the detached, autonomous individual. Enlightenment thinkers rejected the classic understanding of liberty as a freedom for excellence, choosing to do what is good for the flourishing of the individual and the community. In its place, they erected a freedom of indifference, in which individual choice is idolised, constrained only by an all-powerful state.
This freedom of indifference is at the root of the chaotic state of relationships, community, and culture today, and helps explain the inexorable drift to totalitarian solutions on both the Left and the Right. The reality is that we all know we are accountable for our actions. Freedom without responsibility is meaningless.
The remarkable Harriet Tubman, whose efforts to liberate slaves still evoke astonishment, underlined the sad truth about human susceptibility to ideology and bondage: “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”
John F. Kennedy was emphatic: “Liberty without learning is always in peril and learning without liberty is always in vain.”
Yet learning and liberty are not enough, for as we have seen, they are inseparable from virtue. In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the impoverished student, Raskolnikov, is an intelligent young man with a gentle and generous personality perverted by the nihilistic ideology of the personal will to power. He tries to hatch the perfect crime and murders a miserly pawnbroker and her half-sister with an axe. Racked by unexpected horror and remorse for his crime, he experiences deep torment, and only finds redemption, after confessing and being imprisoned, through the selfless devotion of Sonia, an ex-prostitute. By finally embracing a life of virtue, Raskolnikov reclaims his humanity.
Amid all the debates about the essential virtues, the cardinal virtues of ancient Greece – practical wisdom, courage, self-control, and justice – and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love remain the most cogent. Moreover, as the genius of Augustine discerned, a virtuous life is possible if you simply, “Love, and do what you will.” Love encapsulates all the virtues.
If it is true that love, the willingness to sacrifice self for the good of others, is the defining principle of the universe, the force that gives it meaning, then our humanity, as individuals in community, will only come to fulfillment to the extent that we grow in love.
The first thing to recognize about love is its vulnerability; it inevitably entails suffering and self-sacrifice. This point is especially important in the context of Modernity, obsessed as it is with power and control, which entail suppressing the freedom of other people.
So the animal gifted with the power of truth and love is also cursed by the temptation to violence and the lies needed to justify or conceal it. Abusive spouses, managerial bullies, power-hungry politicians, raging sports cheats, and criminal thugs provide evidence of this daily. The human paradox of love and violence has been explored in poetry and myth since the dawn of civilization.
The common response to the unease we feel when confronted by this paradox is to put it out of our minds, but this is to signal that we are less than human. And who would admit to that? We all know in our innermost being that we are meant to be better than we are; we recognize our responsibility for the well-being of other people, other creatures, and the environment.
Moreover, the most cursory survey of history and our troubled technocracy tells us that true fulfillment is only achieved by getting beyond the self-absorption that characterizes postmodern society, in a willingness to lose ourselves in service and sacrifice. Socrates, Marcus Aurelius, Joan of Arc, Lincoln, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and countless other leaders have testified to this reality. However, given the animal side of human nature, most of us are locked in permanent rebellion against it.
Most people refuse the adventure of love, preferring to settle for what they have already made of themselves. Yet leadership, by definition, is creative and never settles for the status quo; it always seeks to make thing better. We are urged to accept the challenge and let love transform us, to make us everything we are capable of being: fully human persons.
All our abilities and creative potential fail to come to fruition, and even bring us to ruin, unless they are directed in the service of love, the act of transcending our self-obsessed animal nature through the proper use of intellect and free will. We cannot live without love, yet we all too often pull back from its demand that we must abandon self in order to experience the fullness of life.
Learning, liberty, and love are the essential conditions of leadership, and they are only understood through the transcendent criteria of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Ideology, bondage, and self-absorption all fuel misleadership. As John of Salisbury told us, “a man is free in proportion to the measure of his virtues, and the extent to which he is free determines what his virtues can accomplish”.
And that is as good a prescription for leadership as you will ever get.