Jul 21 2017

I’d Rather Have Role Models Than Leaders

portico in Bologna, Italia

At the moment our democracy is in disarray, at least according to the Apocalypse of Saint Snowden. As recent writers have shown, what once constituted the legalities of Leviathan has now mutated into the bureaucracies of Behemoth (a.k.a. Big Brother’s Deep State), a beast set to steal all sorts of liberties from citizens:

Modern democracy does not, on its own, encourage a political life and therefore does not encourage people to think of themselves as citizens…. The well-functioning administration (local, state, and federal) liberates them [its citizen-clients] from mutual dependence and thereby robs them of township freedom….[1]

The neighborhood will come; for here, residents are treated as fellow citizens by leaders they know well, rather than as clients by professionals who drop into the community from nine to five….[2]

Every time we blame government for our public problems without contemplating our own role in their solution—from public safety to public works—we view ourselves as “customers rather than citizens….[3]

The mind of Technological Man cannot resist his heart’s desires, because he has been trained by his culture not to question them. Technological Man comes to believe that the limits on what he can do to nature lie primarily in his capacity to subdue it to his will. The Christian must rebel against this. [4]

We are not hermits who happened to have bumped into each other amid our individual isolations. No, we remain a community, and a community must embrace some minimum dependency upon a guide.[5] Yes, much as I hate to admit it, leadership remains a “necessary evil” for human society. Winning teams don’t coach themselves. Yet I’m not infatuated with leadership per se. I’m not interested in being a dog who wants only to lick the palm of its master. There are some who seek to lead, and there are some who need to always be in need––a need usually satisfied by following a leader. But neither role works for me.

Instead, I usually feel things like: I need to be led, but I don’t want to be led, and I believe such confused feelings come about by mistaking the term “leadership” for the term “role model.” For every leader may be a role model, though not every role model is a leader. Perhaps every leader is a potential role model but not vice versa.

There is a lack of dependency, or a sharp difference in degrees of dependency, between an individual’s (as well as a community’s) need for a role model and that individual’s (and that community’s) need for leadership.

When it comes to writers, I look for role models, contemporary ones like Rod Dreher and Alan Jacobs, as well as prior ones like Jonathan Swift and Mary Shelley.[6] But as a reader trying to become a writer, I don’t look for “leadership” from other writers. I don’t want to be collared or muzzled or leashed or (God forbid) crated by penmen and typewomen while they go on vacation.

I imagine my writerly role models reading my work, and such imagining seems to skirt into the cult of celebrity and its transcendental experience of being “star struck” when in the presence of one of these highly regarded role models. But that kind of seizure of nerves leads only to obsession, addiction, and idolatry. For obsession, addiction, and idolatry are structured around mistaking things as needful that aren’t actually necessary. To be in need is to expose and confess one’s dependency, and the concept of dependency returns us to the question of (and need for) leadership. ’Tis a vicious cycle.

Coaches like to tell the team: “never be satisfied.” But if we follow the coach’s lead and logic too closely, soon enough we will not be satisfied with the coach’s leadership. In order for her to remain the leader, we must not follow what she says too literally, too absolutely. In other words, we must not let a leader lead us too far, that is, if we desire to attain the things we are being led toward.

But such a path of independent thinking has its own obstacles. Once we have pushed the leadership of the coach aside, and approach the void of choice ourselves, there nonetheless remains an apparent need not to trust ourselves too much––at least if we wish to remain consistent. Because if we don’t trust the leadership of others, why should we bother trusting any leadership from ourselves? None are without sin, all are fallible, and Acton’s dictum remains ever-true.[7]

Even stranger is the behavioral pattern where, once the game has ended, a coach comes quite close to disavowing her leadership. Once the results are in, a coach never says to the team: “I lost the game” or “I won the game,” but something like: “we lost” or “we won” or, sometimes, “you lost.” When coaches reflect on their results, they detach themselves from their team’s dependency on the very leadership those coaches provide.

As Boethius proclaimed from his prison: “A free mind cannot be commanded.”[8] Who here is interested in propagating “a rhetoric of pure authority?” [9] Not me. Freedom in shackles is what Southern slaveowners told their slaves they had. As sociologist George Fitzhugh (1806–1881) wrote in November 1857:

It is the duty of society to protect all its members, and it can only do so by subjecting each to that degree of government constraint or slavery, which will best advance the good of each and of the whole…. To protect the weak, we must first enslave them.[10]

So I am understandably wary when Rod Dreher stresses a contemporary need for leadership, which might mean actively seeking a leader (perhaps as the Hebrews did for King Saul):

During Benedict’s three years in the cave, a monk named Romanus, from a nearby monastery, brought him food. By the time Benedict emerged from the cave, he had a reputation for sanctity and was invited by a monastic community to be their abbot. Eventually Benedict founded twelve monasteries of his own in the region. His twin sister, Scholastica, followed in his footsteps, beginning her own community of nuns. To guide the monks and nuns in the living simple, orderly lives consecrated to Christ, Benedict wrote a slim book, now known as the Rule of Saint Benedict…. [11]

As we await a new Saint Benedict to appear in our quite different time and place and teach us how to reweave the tapestry of our Christian lives…. [12] not for the second coming of Ronald Reagan or for a would-be political savior, but for a new—and quite different—Saint Benedict…. [13]

If we are the abbot and abbess of our domestic monastery, we will see to it that our family’s life is structured in such a way as to make the mission of knowing and serving God clear to all its members. That means maintaining regular times of family prayer. That means regular readings of Scripture and stories from the lives of saints—Christian heroes and heroines from ages past. “Christian kids need Christian heroes,” says Marco Sermarini, a lay Catholic community leader in Italy. “They need to know that following Jesus radically is not an impossible dream.” [14]

Clearly Sermarini is a “community leader” stressing the need for role models, but concerning Dreher’s other comments I’m not so sure such a distinction is made––particularly the way he pairs a secular politician with a saintly monk—it sounds like the seeking of leadership by those who need to be in need of leadership.

But perhaps Dreher is thinking more along the lines of role models instead of leaders. Take this passage:

The politics of the Benedict Option assume that the disorder in American public life derives from disorder within the American soul. Benedict Option politics start with the proposition that the most important political work of our time is the restoration of inner order, harmonizing with the will of God—the same telos as life in the monastic community. Everything else follows naturally from that. [15]

That doesn’t sound like the Benedict Option is a proposal for its followers to start looking for leaders, but rather a call to turn inward and let their eyes lead them toward some worthy role models. In this context, it is somewhat ironic to observe that Nietzsche too sought high quality role models for how to live, but he didn’t suggest they should lead us via the typical tactics of leaders (lies, threats, and coercion):

Thus another point of Nietzsche’s early philosophy is re-enforced: namely, the view of nature as purposive but inefficient…. [16]

The place Nietzsche would assign to natural selection deserves special mention. He grants that natural selection takes place, but he denies that it operates for “progress.” Mediocrity seems more apt to survive than “the single higher specimens”––“that which is more unusual, more powerful, more complicated.” Hence natural selection will not generate bigger and better philosophers, artists, or saints, but only bigger and better brutes…. [17]

Empirical facts do not seem to him to warrant the belief that history is a story of progress, that ever greater values are developed, and that whatever is later in the evolutionary scale is also eo ipso more valuable. “The goal of humanity cannot lie in the end but only in its highest specimens.” Perhaps there is no more basic statement of Nietzsche’s philosophy in all his writings than this sentence. Here is the most crucial point of his philosophy of history and theory of values—no less than the clue to his “aristocratic” ethics and his opposition to socialism and democracy.[18]



[1] McAllister, Ted V. “Making American Places: Civic Engagement Rightly Understood.” Why Place Matters. Edited by Wilfred M. McClay and McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014. pp. 194, 199.

[2] Scruton, Roger. “A Plea for Beauty: a Manifesto for a New Urbanism.” Why Place Matters 168.

[3] Peterson, Pete. “Place as Pragmatic Policy.” Why Place Matters 214.

[4] Dreher, Rod. The Benedict Option: a Strategy for Christian in a Post-Christian Nation. NY: Sentinel. 2017. p. 234.

[5] Even when we don’t realize it, we depend on others. Yet to be dependent is to be limited, and to be limited is to be unfree. (I use “dependence” in Schleiermacher’s sense.) As the aristocrat Consul Buddenbrook warns his daughter before she decides to marry someone beneath her class, no human is isolated in his or her individuality:

I would like you to recall, however, something that I have impressed upon you often enough in conversation, and which the present occasion allows me to repeat in writing. For, although the words we speak are more vivid and immediate, the written word has the advantage of having been chosen with great care and is fixed in a form that its author has weighed and considered, so that it may be read again and again to cumulative effect. We are not born, my dear daughter, to pursue our own small personal happiness, for we are not separate, independent, self-subsisting individuals, but links in a chain; and it is inconceivable that we would be what we are without those who have preceded us and shown us the path that they themselves have scrupulously trod, looking neither to the left nor to the right, but, rather, following a venerable and trustworthy tradition. (Mann, Thomas. Buddenbrooks, 1922. Translated by John E. Woods. NY: Knopf. 1993. III, x, 130–31.)

[6] There are also things like counter-role models. I once worked for a veterinarian who put it this way: “You can always learn something from anybody, even if it’s what not to do.” To observe someone and learn what not to do would be an example of them serving as a counter-role model. MTV’s Jackass was a television show starring lots of counter-role models because they did lots of things their audience would not do, and were warned in a legal disclaimer not to.

[7] As Walter Jackson Bate put it:

How do we proceed? When we are actually confronted with specific answers, we soon complain of being suffocated or inhibited, of being denied the opportunity to contribute “creatively” and “freely” on our own; and we at once begin—usually with some success—to pick holes in what has been presented us. But as soon as we feel we have pushed all this aside, and at last stand free and ready to make our own contribution, the human heart shrinks at its new nakedness and its new gift of what Santayana calls “vacant liberty.” We start once again to crave specific direction, and turn reproachfully, notebook in hand, on those who are now exhorting [strongly urging] us—in the very spirit we had before demanded—to “go and do likewise….” (The Burden of the Past. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP. 1970. p. 56)

The channeling effort toward achievement, in other words, constitutes a certain limitation: to be one thing is, by definition, not to be another. It is limitation, at least, when compared with what Santayana calls ‘vacant liberty,’ even though this blank liberty to drift without purpose in the dark is meaningless until it is again channeled into specific aims and renewed efforts. The history of human achievement is strewn with compulsive by-products—and with by-products that become, if not more pronounced, at least more striking, in proportion to the degree of concentration on the end desired. Too often, of course, we find a tendency to interpret the achievement as either the flowering or else the compensation of the secondary traces that accompany it, putting the hoof-prints before the horse, and regarding them as a pre-determined path. We are never unwilling to ‘lessen our disparity.’ We all feel disturbing psychological quirks in ourselves; and it is not unpleasing to imagine that if we allowed them to be a little more pressing, the achievement we are interpreting could be our own. (The Achievement of Samuel Johnson. NY: Oxford UP. 1956. p. 155.)

[8] Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus. The Consolation of Philosophy 524 A.D. Translated by David R. Slavitt. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP. 2008. II, vi, prose, p. 50.

[9] Jacobs, Alan. “When Character No Longer Counts.” National Affairs. No. 32 (Spring 2017.)

[10] Fitzhugh, George. “Southern Thought (cont’d).” De Bows Review. November 1857. pp. 450, 454.

[11] Dreher 14–15.

[12] Dreher 47.

[13] Dreher 91.

[14] Dreher 125.

[15] Dreher 96.

[16] Kaufmann, Walter. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP. 1950. Revised Fourth Edition. 1974. p. 235.

[17] Kaufmann 174.

[18] Kaufmann 149.