“…the good is the true goal of all our striving, and in our souls we are quite certain that such a thing actually exists, even though we find it hard to understand precisely what it is. And our lack of understanding impairs our true appreciation of the value of everything else. How on earth can we possibly trust leaders in our society if they are in the dark about this most crucial subject of all?”
–Socrates in Plato’s Republic
A very wise old teacher once told me that all the problems and prejudices described in Plato’s Republic are alive and well in society today, echoing the observation of the great mathematician, A. N. Whitehead, that all philosophy is really just footnotes to Plato. Republic is a Socratic dialogue that seeks to discover the ideal state in which people might flourish, and consequently it is primarily about the nature of justice and leadership. The book is an essential component of a proper education, yet it is safe to assume that most people in leadership positions today are unfamiliar with its contents.
The purpose of leadership, in politics, business, or any form of community, is human flourishing, which basically demands justice and progress. The conflicting demands of liberty and equality, together with the frustrating constant of human perversity, inevitably make a proper harmony between justice and progress difficult to maintain, and that is always and everywhere the dilemma that faces leaders.
Consider an intelligent and highly qualified HR Director at a corporation headed by a boss bent on market domination at any cost. Her position gives her influence and affluence, but no confluence. Her life is falling apart because her personal integrity is being torn asunder. She is ostensibly in a position to promote human flourishing, but she is being bullied and humiliated, and made to do things she knows are wrong, and no amount of money or power can compensate for this debasing of her humanity. She knows the good that her position requires her to do, and she knows that many of the things that she is in reality doing, albeit under duress, are bad for employees, bad for the company, bad for the community, and most definitely bad for her own state of mind, her personal relationships, and increasingly, her physical health.
Her boss, another of the Machiavellian narcissists so common in corporate life today, understands justice as a matter of might is right, and defines progress in terms of the personal fame and fortune he is amassing by making the corporate bottom line look good in the short term before he vaults to his next position. He argues, like Stalin, that “you cannot make an omelette without breaking a few eggs”, conveniently ignoring George Orwell’s famous response: “Yes, but where is the omelette?”
And that is the issue: this impoverished and question-begging understanding of the concepts of justice and progress is obliterating leadership, and making the vision of human flourishing seem like nothing more than an impractical, feel-good utopianism. Inevitably, this only serves to fuel the disillusionment and cynicism that condition people under pressure to be ever more receptive to dishonest, irrational, and violent expedients.