I’m sitting in my hotel room in Copenhagen, about to travel out to Gilleleje, where Kierkegaard spent his summer holidays. It was there that he wrote, or at least gave birth to, some of his greatest work, as he walked by the beach and contemplated the
beauty of creation. More on that later.
You may recall I spoke about purpose at the TWIN Global conference in Miami a couple of weeks ago. Oleksiy Arestovych, Adviser to the Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, Victor Zelensky, spoke via videoconference about a vision for the future of
Ukraine, showing us how purpose can be enacted at a national level
Introduction: vision for the future
We want Ukraine to be the ‘freest country in the world’, said Arestovych. Continuing on that theme, he laid out a vision of a country where people care about each other and see the other as a person. A country where people ask what they can do for others, rather than what others can do for them. He maintains this ideal—of care for others—is both the key to survival in the current conflict with Russia, and the foundation for the future, to the post-war reconstruction.
Ideas shape culture
In a dialogue with Professor Rob Wolcott, a Co-Founder & Chairman, of TWIN Global, Arestovych argued ideas shape culture and in turn society, and so one must understand the ideas that underpin and shape a national character. As a military strategist who is also a philosopher—Arestovych ran a leadership development academy [https://arestovych.apeiron.school] prior to the war—he situated his remarks, therefore, in the history of ideas. While Professor Wolcott gently tried to fast forward Arestovych along to his vision for the future, he repeatedly returned to the past, insisting that we cannot understand the future if we cannot understand the past.
Ideas from Locke and Hobbes planted seeds of conflict and Government control
Arestovych opened his remarks with an extended discourse on the influence of John Locke (1632-1704), an empiricist who is commonly referred to as the father of liberalism, and Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), author of Leviathan and proponent of social contract theory. Arestovych claimed that their ideas laid the groundwork for distrust and conflict between citizens and government, and fostered an egotistical selfishness in individuals who turned to their own satisfaction at the expense of others. This ultimately released an ‘evil’ in humans that led to 150 years of bloody massacres in the name of progress, of deep conflict within and between nations as wildly differing views of society, and the relationship between society and its citizens, took hold and battled for supremacy.
The USA, he noted as an aside, was founded by people escaping the madness of those wars. One could hear in that remark a request for help from those who understand freedom from oppression.
Arestovych argued that increased power of government decreases individual agency, as people turn more and more to governments for direction, rather than taking personal responsibility. Such dependence increases subtly and gradually, until, as if overnight, the Government controls every action and impulse. This ultimately leads to totalitarianism and ‘internal policing of inner thought’ said Arestovych.
While some may argue Arestovych’s cause and effect argument lacks nuance, one cannot argue with the historical evidence regarding the terror imposed on citizens by totalitarian states, and the depersonalising agendas that have resulted in genocides.
Persons are both good and bad
Further, Arestovych explained, in terms reminiscent of Solzhenitsyn’s insight that the line between good and evil runs through the human heart, that ideas that take hold in a society can unleash both good or bad. Implicit in Arestovych’s vision, therefore, is an understanding that people, by their very nature, can be disposed toward good or evil acts, influenced, as he points out, by the prevailing culture.
He reminds us that it is ourselves who tend toward good and bad, and so each of us is capable of inflicting violence on others. To do so, however, perpetuates the cycle, and gives victory to violence. Therefore, he said, with some passion, Ukrainians will avoid that tendency to seek revenge, for to give in to anger would represent loss. In his daily briefings he calls on Ukrainians to find love in their hearts, not hatred toward soldiers who are committing war crimes. This is an extraordinary approach in the midst of such bloody conflict.
Hence, Arestovych is encouraging what he calls ‘a revolution in human dignity’ to foster a society that liberates human goodness, and that is marked by fairness, justice and joy.
This is in direct contrast, he says, with Russia, a country and culture that has a fundamentally different view of the human person, and that wants to impose authoritarian values on others.
‘We are fighting for liberty,’ he quietly explained through an interpreter, ‘for our right not to have these guys [the Russians] cross our border and tell us how to live.’
The future, therefore, says Arestovych, requires a society based on self-discipline, curiosity and creativity, based not on fear but joy. He argues that people will love, trust, and help one another, where the society of which they are a part is based on joy, care and concern. His fundamental premise is that there is more good in people than bad, and so he is ‘betting everything on the good in the human person’.
In order to understand Arestovych’s remarks we must understand his philosophical framework, for it is intensely personalist. We might in fact call it applied personalism Personalism broadly refers to understanding and solving those matters that confront human beings from the premise that human beings are persons, a someone rather than a something. It is grounded in the fundamental principle that a person is not a means to an end, some resource for use by a state, by a corporation, or by others, but someone who has their own purpose, their own specific reason for being.
It is these two premises that Arestovych brings to bear with his vision for the future: let us solve problems from the perspective of the persons who are impacted by both the problem and our solutions, and let us ensure that any solution fosters the fulfillment, or flourishing of those persons. Or, to put it in Arestovych’s terms, let us build a truly free society based on respect and human dignity, where care and concern for others are foundational.
While Arestovych may not explicitly be a personalist, his approach situates him in a stream of influential personalist thinkers, that stretches back to early last century to Emmanuel Mounier (1905-1950), and Jacques Maritain (1882-1973). However, in articulating a personalist vision for Ukraine, he does something no one has done before. While personalism has been applied to economics, management and leadership, and influenced the Solidarity movement in Poland during the 1980s, it has not been applied to national government. Arestovych, and Ukraine, maybe doing the world a favour in attempting such a bold endeavour.
Come and help create that society
One would expect someone in Arestovych’s position to articulate a post-war vision to restore the economy, rebuild infrastructure, establish stronger trade and geopolitical relationships, bring war criminals to justice, and create a climate where business could flourish. While Arestovych touched on these, he emphasised that economic and material success is contingent on the arts and ideas, which create a flourishing culture.
In his closing remarks Arestovych invited people who want to create and to do good to come to Ukraine and be part of the rebuild. On the understanding that betting on evil has nothing going for it, he invites people who want to do good to discover together how to build a civilisation and a culture. What a truly noble and truly personalist vision of a country, that can serve as an inspiration for the kind of future we can all create in our countries, our companies and our communities.
And how do we start? By helping the children who have been orphaned, separated, and suffered. These are ultimately the future. While Arestovych did not advocate specific approaches or charities, he reminded us of the awful suffering of children, and how helping them overcome the trauma of war was fundamental to a future of freedom. It’s worth finding your way to help.