At a leadership seminar that I recently ran for senior students from twelve schools, one of the more intriguing conversations I became engaged in was with an obviously sincere young Muslim man. He told me that in a discussion with his peers on the essential objective of leadership, he had provoked bewilderment, and not a little laughter, by suggesting that it was beauty.
As he tried to find the words to articulate his conviction, it seemed clear to me, as well as inspiring I might add, that his remarkable insight was purely intuitive rather than the result of discursive reasoning. Yet the imaginative force and sheer audacity of his intuition reflected a finely nurtured young mind that has much to contribute to a world currently bereft of leadership.
I commended the young man for his perceptiveness and tried briefly to provide him with some of the philosophical concepts and references that would enable him to give a more rationally compelling account of his insight. From a personal point of view, he had given me the always welcome whack on the side of the head, alerting me to a very significant perspective on leadership that is largely ignored in a world obsessed by process, skills training, and template thinking.
According to what rationally satisfying principles can I confidently stand alongside my young friend and affirm that the prime objective of leadership is beauty? The radiance and joy Einstein experienced in the presence of goodness, beauty, and truth provide a clue. Significantly, he regarded them as ideals, standards of perfection that people should strive to attain, and here, he echoed a classical and still cogent philosophical tradition.
Beauty, Truth and Goodness
Beauty, together with Truth and Goodness (capitalized for clarity) is what classical philosophy called transcendentals, that is, concepts that transcend physical reality and are the criteria by which we judge all things, ourselves, other people, and the world around us. The truth about a thing is the reality of it as it is; the goodness of a thing is its integrity, its fulfillment in being everything it was intended to be. And beauty…well, that’s where things become rather more controversial.
It is reasonable enough to acknowledge that people can be deeply moved by the beauty, for example, of the Aurora Borealis or the Mona Lisa. Natural beauty and artistic beauty both have the power to arrest our attention and inspire in us various degrees of joy and satisfaction. This is why Merriam Webster provides what is probably the most apt of the dictionary definitions: “beauty is the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit.”
However, the idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder is both ancient and persistent. The Latin maxim, De gustibus non disputandum est (roughly: in matters of taste, there is no point arguing), was given intellectual clout by the still popular Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, who asserted: “Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them, and each mind perceives a different beauty.”
In the Modern mindset, with its exaltation of the detached, sovereign individual and the sanctity of personal choice — and also, ironically, in the Postmodern reaction — Hume’s view has gained near universal currency. Beauty, according to conventional thinking, is purely a matter of personal taste. And it wasn’t long before this unsubstantiated subjectivism was being extended to truth and goodness as well: hence, the widespread belief that there is no such thing as absolute truth, and that it is up to each individual to decide what is good for him or her. An often nihilistic relativism has intoxicated western society, and most people stumble through life inebriated by these unexamined, and socially destructive, assumptions.
Beauty as an objective reality
For if Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are indeed purely matters for subjective choice, what are we to make of the intriguing insight of Socrates, who told us that “the object of education is to teach us to love what is beautiful”? Might Socrates (pictured right) not reasonably ask of David Hume whether the latter’s conclusion was an absolute truth? In fact, there are many other essential questions that relativism furtively avoids.
Is it true that there is such a thing as human nature? Is it true that human nature finds fulfillment in freedom, knowledge, virtue, family and community, rewarding work, a measure of prosperity, and a clear sense of meaning and purpose in life? And, that being the case, is it not obvious that those are the things that constitute the Good in human life? Their opposites – slavery, ignorance, vice, loneliness, unemployment, poverty, and meaninglessness – are plainly antithetical to human flourishing.
Identifying objective truth and objective goodness is pretty straightforward once you sweep aside all the political correctness and the pseudo-philosophical mumbo-jumbo. But where does that leave beauty? Why would Socrates see beauty as the object of education?
The rigorous philosophical tradition referred to above provides cogent answers to these questions. While the Sophist, Protagoras, gave relativism its still-popular sound-bite when he said, “man is the measure of all things”, far greater philosophers upheld the principle of beauty as an objective reality. Plato believed that all beautiful things reflect in some degree the perfect form of transcendent beauty, Beauty itself, which is necessarily immaterial, and therefore apprehended in the first instance by the intellect, over and above the senses.
Aristotle also saw beauty as the object of contemplation rather than desire. He proposed that the essential properties of beauty were order, symmetry, and clarity, supporting his belief that mathematics is intimately related to beauty. Thomas Aquinas built on Aristotle’s insights and provided the classic definition of beauty: “The beautiful is that which pleases us on being seen” (not by the eyes, but by the mind’s eye). He went on to explain that a beautiful thing gives us immediate and deep satisfaction simply through our intuitive grasp of it.
Immanuel Kant also strenuously refuted the idea that beauty is merely a matter of taste, and emphasized that the aesthetic experience is unique. For Kant too, beauty was more than mere sensory pleasure or the satisfaction of desire, that is, the fulfillment of interests; he recognized that beauty gives immediate pleasure prior to any sensory or rational assent. In other words, appreciating beauty involves knowing the thing observed intuitively rather than discursively: it is a flash rather than a process.
Taste, culture and temperament
These insights from philosophy, classical and modern, enable us to see that beauty is an objective reality outside of us, even though it is subjective to the extent that it calls for a judgment of personal taste, inevitably shaped by culture and temperament. Significantly, personal taste in anything has to be developed over time: an uncultivated mind is unlikely to appreciate Sophocles or Shakespeare; an untrained ear might find opera uncongenial, and a lack of historical perspective and psychological insight might mislead one to view Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Holofernes as grotesque.
Of course, perspective can also relativise beauty. To the naked eye snowflakes might seem aesthetically unexceptional, yet under magnification, they are revealed as unique and wondrous manifestations of natural beauty. But the basis for our personal judgments, and for discussion and debate, is always objectively there in the world beyond the thinking self. Which is where the standards identified by Aristotle – order, symmetry, and clarity – are instructive.
This all leads us to the rational understanding of beauty as the transcendental quality that evokes immediate wonder and joy when apprehended, not just by the senses, but by the whole person, mind, body, and soul. It is that which radiates truth and goodness and fills us with a sense of awe.
Beauty, suffering and redemption
Since we encounter beauty in the world outside ourselves, the intense feelings it inspires in us makes it a constant challenge to the hubris and self-absorption to which human beings are prone. And this should lead us to regard life and the world with a certain reverence.
Yet, as with truth and goodness, beauty can also often be seen as a judgment against our own inadequacies and failures. Hence the fairly common phenomenon of nihilistic rage that lashes out and violates truth, goodness, and beauty. The contemporary celebration of the deceitful, the cruel, and the hideous in postmodern art and literature (think only of Tracey Emin’s unmade bed, Manzoni’s cans of feces, or the gratuitous violence that daily assails television screens) gives expression to this irrational resentment.
Paradoxically, it is possible to recognize beauty even in the squalor, pain, and decay we see in the world. The tension between suffering and redemption that marks the human condition can be expressed aesthetically in ways that point to the ultimate triumph of good in this world of sorrows. As Roger Scruton explains in his outstanding reflection on Beauty in the Oxford University Press publication of the same name:
“T S Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ describes the modern city as a soulless desert, but it does so with images and allusions that affirm what the city denies. Our very ability to make this judgment is the final disproof of it. If we can grasp the emptiness of modern life, this is because art points to another way of being, and Eliot’s poem makes this other way available.”
Just as the natural splendour of a waterfall or an Alpine peak can arouse in us what in German is called Sehnsucht, a deep spiritual yearning, so too does true art, that is, works like Vermeer’s The Milkmaid or Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, that appeal to our higher nature through the transformational power of beauty. The vision of redemption, the assurance of hope, the inchoate yearning for existential fulfillment, all find expression through the mysterious reality of beauty.
Implications for leadership
The implications for the meaning of leadership are profound. The essence of meaning, as Aristotle (pictured left) told us, is form – not mere shape, but the very nature of a thing, that which makes it what it is, its truth, goodness, and beauty in itself as a part of Being, the totality of existence. True education can only be built on the sure foundation of meaning, enabling us to understand ourselves, others, the cosmos, and all the relationships within that potential harmony. And need it be reiterated that leadership grows out of true education and not skills training?
Leadership, in the first instance, is built on truth, a total commitment to seeing things as they are in reality. Without such a commitment, concepts like justice, vision, strategy, and mission, have no meaning.
In the second instance, leadership must seek human flourishing, that is, the good of all, an impossible task unless one has a clear and compelling grasp of what constitutes the good of human beings. The leadership ideals of service and sacrifice that flow from those principles are inspiring and profoundly pleasing to the soul, even in failure. In other words, in its true form, leadership is a thing of great beauty.
In her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin relates the story of how some forty years after Lincoln’s assassination, Tolstoy was asked by villagers in a remote region of the Caucasus to tell them about the great leaders of history. He spoke about Alexander, Caesar, Frederick the Great, and Napoleon, but in the end, the person the villagers wanted to hear about was Lincoln. Goodwin quotes the great novelist:
“This little incident proves how largely the name of Lincoln is worshipped throughout the world and how legendary his personality has become. Now, why was Lincoln so great that he overshadows all other national heroes? He really was not a great general like Napoleon or Washington; he was not such a skilful statesman as Gladstone or Frederick the Great, but his supremacy expresses itself altogether in his peculiar moral power and in the greatness of his character.”
Lincoln continues to inspire people all around the world because of the splendor of his vision, his grace under pressure, and his profound compassion and generosity of spirit for all people, even his enemies. His leadership was a thing of beauty because it was built on truth and goodness, as could be discerned by the people of any culture.
In the moral confusion of the postmodern West, too many people have been misled to believe that truth, goodness, and beauty, and therefore leadership, are in the eye of the beholder. They fail to see that their subjectivist mindset logically leaves not only the transcendentals, but also leadership, impossible to define, and therefore, impossible to achieve. Is it any wonder that we have a global leadership crisis? This socially destructive mindset is at the root of the existential despair choking western society.
Human flourishing is beautiful, as is the seemingly interminable struggle to achieve it; human degradation, on the other hand, is ugly, as is the cynicism that accepts it as inevitable. The inescapable question for any society is whether it is a thing of beauty, a celebration of human flourishing, and therefore a culture worthy of transmission to succeeding generations, and also adoption by immigrants. It is a question about identity, who we are; vision, the fulfillment we look towards; and virtue, the positive principles on which alone we can build a truly beautiful society. Not for nothing did Dostoevsky have Prince Myskin say in The Idiot:
“Beauty will save the world.”
This column originally appeared at Mercatornet.com and is reprinted with permission.