Does faith obscure reason? Does reason obscure faith? Or perhaps their subject matters are different.
Regular readers of this blog know that I have a longstanding interest in the appeal of Donald Trump, and the social and psychological forces that catapulted him into power. More recently, I’ve been fascinated by the sudden intellectual celebrity of University of Toronto psychologist and self-help guru Jordan Peterson, whose most recent book has rocketed to the top of US Amazon’s bestseller list. These and other events have piqued my interest in the phenomenon of charisma. I have been reading and thinking about this subject for some time now, and have made it the focus of this month’s contribution to the Philosophy Talk blog.
It’s a commonplace that certain people who rise to leadership positions seem to exude a sort of personal magnetism that many find irresistible. Early in the 20th century, the social theorist Max Weber called this mysterious quality "charisma." The word comes from the Greek kharisma—meaning “a divine gift or favor.” In the Christian tradition it refers to gifts such as prophecy, healing, and speaking in tongues that flow from God’s grace. Weber adopted the term as a name for an attribute of a certain kind of leader. It is, he said, “a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is considered extraordinary and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers.” Although there’s nowadays a spectrum of opinion among social theorists about what exactly charismatic leadership boils down to, most tend to think of it as a kind of authority that’s grounded in followers’ attitudes of reverence towards their leader, grounded in illusions that the leader wittingly or unwittingly cultivates.
Some charismatic leaders are very obviously destructive. Hitler is the paradigmatic example. As Laurence Rees observes in his book Hitler’s Charisma, the charismatic leader “must possess a strong ‘missionary’ element and is almost a quasi-religious figure.” He continues, “Followers of such a leader are looking for more than just lower taxes or better health care, but seek broader, almost spiritual goals of redemption and salvation. The charismatic leader cannot exist easily within normal bureaucratic structures and is driven forward by a sense of personal destiny.” What gives these leaders such immense destructive power is summed up by the subtitle of Rees’ book: Leading Millions Into The Abyss. They are able to attract zealous followers who are ready and willing to commit crimes and atrocities at the leader’s behest.
Hitler was exceptional, both in the scope and the degree of the devastation that he wrought. Most charismatic leaders cannot be readily compared with him, as his malevolence, ambition, and gifts far outstripped those of most others. But you don’t have to incite violence to do harm. I think that there is something inherently injurious about charismatic authority, because it undermines followers’ autonomy, often in the guise of promoting it. The charismatic leader may loudly endorse the importance of truth, autonomy, and the ethic of personal freedom, while implicitly subverting these very values. He may urge his followers to take responsibility for their lives, to be reflective and self-critical, to speak truth to power, and to realize their human potential, while at the same time cultivating their idealization of him, fostering their intellectual and moral subservience and never challenging their abject failure to critically assess his pronouncements.
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that autonomy is precious because it provides the platform upon which morality and rationality rest. You don’t have to swallow the whole Kantian framework to recognize that there is truth to this claim. However well intended, and whatever positive consequences might flow from behaving in ways that erode others’ autonomy, relating to others in this way is a gesture of profoundest disrespect.
Although there are many variations on charismatic leadership, there are certain core characteristics that these variations commonly share. The charismatic leader is usually a man, because this kind of leadership is closely associated with stereotypical masculine narratives and symbolism (which are often frowned upon when embodied in a woman). He is heroic. Fearlessly bucking convention, and unconstrained by the rules that hamstring others, he boldly points out facts that others are too timid or cowed by political correctness to address. He is confident and decisive, untroubled by uncertainty or self-doubt. As Hannah Arendt commented (apropos of Hitler’s charisma) that, “Extraordinary self-confidence and displays of self-confidence…inspire confidence in others; pretensions of genius waken the conviction in others that they are indeed dealing with a genius.” Even though he may be well read and have facts at his fingertips, his claims are often grand and sweeping—perhaps even cosmic in scope. He frames his message as an apocalyptic struggle between great forces. He asserts rather than questions, propounds rather than discusses, and contemptuously caricatures the views that he disagrees with, as well as the people who hold them.
The charismatic leader possesses a prophetic vision. He offers to rescue us, to redeem us, banish the sources of anxiety or despair, to avert an impending catastrophe. His message is an urgent one, alerting us to the danger posed by a powerful, demonic enemy. The enemy might be a cabal of Jews, a horde of illegal immigrants swarming across our southern border, or an army of postmodern neo-Marxists, chipping away at the foundations of Western civilization. But whatever its source, the leader takes pains to let us know that the menace has been ignored, underestimated, or pandered to by the complacent (or complicit) members of the ruling elites.
The charismatic leader appears to be sincere—usually because he really is sincere. He embraces his prophetic calling, and fully commits to the truth and value of his redemptive project. His power resides, in large measure, in the aura of authenticity that he projects. The charismatic leader performs sincerity. He is a master of stagecraft, with a gut-level understanding of the power of long, dramatic silences and animated gesticulations, and an uncanny ability to find just the form of words that are most likely to inspire the listeners whom he targets. To those untouched by his gospel, he seems arrogant, grandiose, and narcissistic. But to members of the charismatic community surrounding him, the experience is something akin to being in love.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he has an instinctive feel for the emotional pulse of his target audience, and can diagnose and respond to their pains, confusions, and frustrations. Many writers have pointed out that such leaders often come forward during times of rapid social change when established roles and norms are losing their grip and traditional identities are thrown into disarray. In every such transition, there are those who feel that they are in danger of losing the power, status, or security that they believe to be their rightful lot. They no longer know who they are, and can no longer count on the ordinary assumptions and routines of social life. It is people like these who are especially at risk of becoming entangled in a web of charismatic hype.
You don’t have to be stupid, uneducated, gullible, or deplorable to fall for charismatic leaders. Life can be hard, and is full of uncertainty, vulnerability, and disappointment. Because of this, and because of the uniquely human capacity to envision a different world, it is part of the human condition to have a weak spot for magical solutions to life’s seemingly intractable problems. It’s easy to sneer at those whom we recognize as true believers in would-be saviors, but the fatal attraction of charisma is something to which none of us are entirely immune. And this makes it all the more important to resist.