The New Barbarism

The most cursory perusal of the headlines from a selection of newspapers around the western world today illuminates the grim realities of a civilisation disintegrating.

We are assailed by all manner of social dysfunction, crimes of sickening depravity, sensual gratification of epic proportions, financial prodigality once considered the preserve of banana republics, serial corruption in both corporate and government sectors, staggeringly ill-conceived military adventurism, and a voyeuristic obsession with supine celebrity.

We seem to have lost the ability and the will to live together in harmony and to run our affairs responsibly.

Emblematic of the circumstances we find ourselves in are the many ugly episodes of bullying among schoolchildren, which instantly stream into cyberspace to entertain the millions who have nothing better to do with their time. Bullying, of course, has plagued human society from the start, but what unsettles one in our allegedly advanced stage of civilisation are the shocking levels of demonic cruelty in souls so young.

Innocence has been shattered long before any meaningful worldview might have been inculcated in these culturally deprived malcontents, and before any balanced character formation might have taken place. They are condemned to a life of barbarism before they even know the possibilities and pitfalls of human life.

Jose Ortega Y Gasset many years ago penned the classic definition of barbarism:

Barbarism is the absence of standards to which an appeal can be made.

To what standard might an appeal be made in the face of these youthful thugs? The Ten Commandments? The Beatitudes? Honour? Virtue? The Golden Rule? The Categorical Imperative? The happiness of the greatest number? They would not know what you are talking about.

Our brave new world that has swept aside all standards now finds the new barbarians within its gates. We have wilfully been producing them for generations, and are now living with the consequences of our folly.

Sixty years ago, in a 46-page work of genius entitled The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis warned western society that it was actively undermining the very qualities that it held up as essential for success and well-being: drive, dynamism, self-sacrifice, and creativity. Lewis‘s insight and eloquence were seldom more brilliantly deployed:

In a sort of ghastly simplicity, we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

Of course, while we wring our hands, not knowing what to do in the deluge of dysfunction destroying lives daily all around us, most people are risibly ignorant that the warning was even given, let alone unheeded.

Throughout the last century, astute observers saw the signs of the impending collapse of western civilisation. Many of them also prescribed the essential remedy – a return to the virtues of Athens, Jerusalem, and Rome, on which our flawed but once progressively humane culture was built.

Culture is transmitted by education, but the rejection of our culture by nihilistic elites has entailed the dismantling of our education tradition and its replacement by skills-based vocational training and ideological brainwashing.  Social control has been the prime objective of state schooling since its introduction in the 19th century, though the elitist practice has been with us for much longer.

It was the cynical sage, Lao Tse, who some two and a half thousand years ago counseled:

Empty their heads and fill their bellies, weaken their minds and strengthen their sinews. To teach the people is to ruin the state.

That is the mentality that has spawned our malaise. In the inevitable downward spiral into meaninglessness, young people today are supposed to find that vital human quality called hope in consumerism, promiscuity, and licence. It is a spurious quest, and the rage of the deceived generations that erupts with ever-increasing frequency is but a symptom of the disease that afflicts them – the absence of answers to the ultimate questions posed by Kant:

Who am I? What may I hope? What ought I to do?

The once fertile fields of our civilisation are now choked by the weeds of the new barbarism, and there will be no quick fix. Tragically, less than civilised expedients like a return to capital punishment and more ruthless forms of incarceration will almost certainly gather popular approval as the incidence of social pathology worsens, but they will not eradicate the toxic crop we have sown. Only education can do that.

The bottom line is this: we have to stop filling the heads of young people with nihilistic nonsense. Can you cure an alcoholic by giving him alcohol? Can you cure a junkie by feeding him methamphetamine? Well, you can be sure you won‘t cure raging despair in a youth by feeding him nihilism, telling him there is no meaning in life beyond self-gratification.

The great treasure of western civilisation is the literature, art, music, architecture, history, philosophy, and science that have sought the truth that enables the sovereign human soul to discern the meaning of life. Ideology, in many different guises, has tried to obscure and even destroy that treasure.

The future will be determined by whether we are able to restore it.


Andre van Heerden
Andre van Heerden
ANDRE heads the corporate leadership program The Power of Integrity, and is the author of three books on leadership, Leaders and Misleaders, An Educational Bridge for Leaders, and Leading Like You Mean It. He has unique qualifications for addressing the leadership crisis. Since studying law at Rhodes University, he has been a history teacher, a deputy headmaster, a soldier, a refugee, an advertising writer, a creative director, an account director on multinational brands, a marketing consultant, and a leadership educator. He has worked in all business categories on blue-chip brands like Toyota, Ford, Jaguar, Canon, American Express, S C Johnson, Kimberley Clark, and John Deere, while leadership coaching has seen him help leaders and aspirant leaders in Real Estate, Retail, the Science Sector, Local Government, Education, Food Safety, Banking, and many other areas.

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  1. Many times it has been heard that education makes you free, or that a child, a teacher, a book and a pen can change the world … and it’s true! It is exactly like this: knowledge and mastery of knowledge offer incredible power to each of us, to be masters of our destiny and our future and to build a better society. Education is a treasure and an essential strength for the realization of every individual and collective consciousness.

    Education, which is one of the fundamental rights of citizens, must be of quality, inclusive, guarantee equality for a more equitable, better society, for peace and for eco-sustainability.

    Revitalizing education, therefore. And, obviously, the school is at the center of this set of attention and actions, at the center of the development and dissemination of new innovative practices.