Tuesday, January 21, 2014

In Search of the Garden of Eden

Ever since they were cast out of the Garden of Eden, mankind has been seeking a return to a self-sustaining utopian society based on peace, harmony and communal living. Perhaps at no time in history was this more evident than during the 19th century when hundreds of such societies littered the nation’s landscape, most disappearing within a few years without a trace.

Often led by charismatic leaders with high religious or secular moral ideals, these settlements experimented wildly with different models of government, marriage, labor and wealth. Unfortunately, paradise in the present has always been elusive but that hasn’t stopped people from trying. Seekers attempting to leave behind the conventions and restrictions of traditional society have created self-sustaining communities ranging from groups of tofu-making hippies in rural Virginia to expatriates living in treehouses in the Costa Rican rainforest.

So why have they failed?  For one thing, the bar is constantly being raised. Life in a modest American home today would have been the envy of the Middle Ages.  It seems that humans are not able to maintain a moral, financial or educational equality.  People will always want more, or someone else’s toys.  Competition is a core human quality of “survival of the fittest.” Any land of milk and honey automatically attracts swords and muskets.

Secondly, although acceptance into these societies is often carefully controlled and outsiders are not welcome, internal power grabs are even more poisonous to utopian dreams than external threats. Utopian leadership based on the model of the “benevolent prince” or “philosopher king” is inherently unstable. There are inevitably factions out of power who are unhappy with things. Charismatic leaders typically do not provide successors with anything like their talents. The competition for succession invariably favors not the wise, but the ruthless.

Finally, ideals are constraints, and the more constraints one tries to impose, the less viable the community will be. Since most religious utopias imposed constraints on the members’ worldly desires, they needed a mechanism for self-selection and, thus, exclusion of non-believers. Over time, however, these constraints become weakened through changes in leadership and outside influences and the lines between the society and the outside world become blurred.  In the end, each member must choose his own way.

In my new book, The Stone House Legacy, I will explore this phenomenon in more detail. I will look at the failure of one such settlement through the lens of modern day society. Are we doomed to continue to make the same mistakes in our search for paradise? In James Madison’s view, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Mystique of Charismatic Leaders

I have always been fascinated by the concept of charismatic leadership.  What is it that makes the charismatic leader almost god-like in the eyes of their followers so that people line up behind them without question? What is the psychological bondage between leader and follower that makes them succeed? What are the attributes of such a leader, how does the social situation give rise to their power, and finally, how does the interaction between the leader and his followers give rise to his power?

Gandhi and Hitler were both charismatic leaders.  They were able to establish a strong connection with their followers based on a personal conviction, bordering on the magical...as if they alone had received the vision directly from some higher power. These men possessed the ability to connect with a large audience of supporters, often by reinforcing and then heightening their existing beliefs. They were brilliant communicators, always certain of their beliefs.

Both leaders rose to power at a time when their followers were in distress and were looking for someone who would identify himself with their problems.  The social situation was becoming increasingly worsened and the leader appeared at a time when people were looking for a savior. The leader represents a radical change in the current situation and his conviction arouses the followers to become part of the change.

It seems to me that charismatic leaders must face a critical turning point at which they must choose between the power and prestige of their position and their belief in their own god-like powers or accept their own mortality and move toward routinization of leadership, thus relinquishing their power over their followers. Those who try to hang on create a type of cult leadership based on authoritarian methods, while those who relinquish the power of leadership lose followers and quickly fall out of favor. They leave themselves open to attack from opponents who seize upon the opportunity to discredit the charismatic leader in order to advance their own cause.

As I begin work on my next novel, I hope to explore this phenomenon in more detail by bringing my main character to the decision point and seeing which direction he chooses.

Coming in 2014 (hopefully!)
The Stone House Legacy by Wanda DeHaven Pyle