miércoles, 7 de octubre de 2015

Edmund Burke: “We must have leaders. If none will undertake to lead us right, we shall find guides who will contrive to conduct us to shame and ruin.”

Reflections on Leadership

by George Panichas

“In the long run democracy will be judged,” writes Irving Babbitt in Democracy and Leadership (1924), “no less than other forms of government, by the quality of its leaders, a quality that will depend in turn on the quality of their vision.” 

Babbitt’s words should remind us that the need for leadership, always urgent, remains ever more urgent in our time. We have now reached a stage in history when the socio-political crisis of leadership goes hand-in-hand with what might be called the spiritual crisis of nihilism: that ultimate negation of moral principles of order and belief. In many ways this twin crisis is the offshoot of what Jacob Burckhardt was to speak of, with particular reference to the French Revolution, as the “authorization to perpetual revision.” In American society and culture, especially since the end of World War II, but going on throughout the twentieth century, we have seen an incessant revision of standards of leadership, as well as of American civilization itself, as leadership at all levels of national life has taken on specious forms.

Increasingly we have discarded standards of leadership that make for greatness and for that vision without which a civilization perishes. It is all too evident that many Americans do not relate confidently to the qualities that typify a great leader, one who, in Burckhardt’s words, “is the man of exceptional intellectual or moral power whose activity is directed to a general aim, that is, a whole nation, a whole civilization, humanity itself.” These are noble words, to be sure, and portray the noble aims of those who have “greatness of soul.” Burckhardt, of course, does not permit idealism to overshadow hard facts, hard realities, and he cautions us by emphasizing that the idea of greatness, both as benefactor and as beneficence, has intrinsic ambiguity, if not relativeness. “Greatness is all that we are not,” he emphasizes, if only to warn us that to find exemplary leadership is often problematic. We must always be prepared for disappointment and disillusionment in our search for a leader, given the human condition. Here, in any case, it is well to recall the admonition that we must have absolute standards and modest expectations. In the present time, when the lures of mediocrity inform human aspirations, as well as concepts of leadership, the desiderata that Burckhardt associates with great leaders merit close attention. Growing wings to overcome gravity, to evoke Plato’s wondrous image, is, or should be, a continual goal. Human culture and character advance, creatively and critically, only insofar as ascent is our purpose and effort. “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?” is an eternal question that the Psalmist asks of Man.

We must not allow ourselves to be misled by “terrible simplifiers” who would reduce human life and achievement to the lowest common denominator, even as we now see and experience the baleful results of this phenomenon in all facets of contemporary life. At the point when we no longer proclaim qualitative standards, subordinating them to socio-political agenda and expediency, we sink into the trough of mediocrity. If we are to avoid the awful costs of such a descendancy, we must, however unpopular and vulnerable our position may be, insist that standards of achievement, of life, of discrimination, should determine our range of awareness. If, too, we are not to be subsumed by the ant-hill of modern life, we must maintain at a maximal point a keen awareness of excellence, of criteria, of obligations – of greatness. Above all we must insist on those qualities of leadership that measure not so much practical success but rather the capacity for growth of insight and wisdom in terms of the moral life and the ethical life. To adopt a policy of silence or of neglect with regard to the higher metaphysical attributes of leadership, or to convert these attributes into exclusively equalitarian demands, and fallacies, trivializes the meaning of leadership. When and where standards are ignored, or scorned, or silenced, the consequences are injurious to civilization, to the polity, to governance. A morally impoverished society will produce morally impoverished leaders.

In whom do we now recognize and salute leaderly qualities? Who are representative of great leadership? What accounts for the growing diminution of standards of leadership, of “men of light and leading” who, for Edmund Burke, combine “a disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve”? One who dares to answer these questions in the light of current practices and habits is bound to notice both a general drifting of leadership and a shifting of standards. The process of deterioration and debasement, once begun, is difficult to arrest, particularly in a technologico- Benthamite society that respects neither moral determinants nor moral deterrents. Such a nullifying process is registered in the ways in which men and women today judge the nature, the mission and ethos, of leadership, and of leaders who are unfriendly to the venerable triad of reason, Scripture, and tradition. With the growing absence of standards and discipline of leadership one can also observe a commensurate absence of leaders capable of guiding the citizenry to a higher moral and in turn socio-political ground. As such, leadership itself is annexed by the market-place; it becomes its handmaiden and accomplice, complying with the prevailing climate of opinion and adapting itself to the whirl of the world. The idea of and the needs for leadership are thus reduced to a quantitative state, to a kind of emptiness, even entropy.


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