The Myth of Macbeth

Richard Olivier, co-facilitator of the upcoming Ethical Ambition and Courageous Leadership intensive at Findhorn in July, invites us to explore the spiritual aspects of Shakespeare’s work.

The Invisible Hand and Ethical Ambition

What drives us forwards in our lives? How much is enough? Does ambition inevitably lead us on a slippery slope?

These questions seem more pressing than ever at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century and as we end the first generation of global capitalism.

The Dangers of Too Much:

Shakespeare’s infamous tyrant leader Macbeth, driven by “overreaching ambition”, gives himself the right to kill his lawful King, then his best friend Banquo and finally innocent women and children, ethical ambitionbefore he is defeated. This play includes the first recorded literary reference to the “invisible hand” made famous by Adam Smith as a term to describe the natural force that guides free market capitalism through competition for scarce resources. In its original context Macbeth is encouraging his wife not to question his methods, which in this instance is the planned assassination of a loyal and good friend:

“Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck,
Till thou applaud the deed. Come, seeling night,
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day,
And with thy bloody and invisible hand
Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond
Which keeps me pale!…
Thou marvel’st at my words, but hold thee still:
Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill.”

The invisible hand belongs to “seeling night” which he implores to tear to pieces the “great bond” which is his conscience, that which keep him pale in the face of unethical desires. As with tyrant kings so with unethical leaders; whether Macbeth, Hitler, Enron, expense fiddling MPs or sub prime mortgage lenders, the conceit is the same; “Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill.”

Shakespeare’s philosophy draws on
a profoundly spiritual tradition

When working at the World Economic Forum in 2003 I was asked by several CEOs, “How can we learn to spot the bad guys before they get to the top?” An important question and difficult to answer. ethical ambitionYou can measure when someone is not ambitious enough, a testing diagnostic tool can help you de-select those with little or no drive for success, but those same tools will rarely if ever tell you when someone has too much drive, too much ambition. How on earth can you measure if someone is likely to cut ethical corners when they feel under threat? Getting individuals interested in their own capacity for both self-awareness and moral development is the best safety net we can create.

Success breeds many things, one of which is confidence, the shadow of which is arrogance. The better we do (especially in positions of authority and leadership) the more others tend to reward us and praise us. The longer this continues the more danger there is that we get inflated. When others direct their attention and praise on us we, literally and metaphorically, get “blown up”, like a balloon getting air puffed into it. We “inflate” with our own sense of ourselves. Pretty soon, if we are not careful, we begin to think we are always right — and that those who disagree with us must be wrong. If we continue on the slippery slope we soon imagine we have the right to get rid of these annoying “disagreers” who stand in our way. Just as Macbeth gives himself the right to remove Banquo, so all too often we see dissenting voices removed from decision making circles; whether in NGOs, business or government. We need good friends and wise mentors to keep us honest when we start becoming successful.

Who am I to make a difference?

Shakespeare’s philosophy draws on a profoundly spiritual tradition; when I met with Prince Charles while preparing a production of Henry V for the opening season of the Globe Theatre in London, the first question he asked was whether I thought Shakespeare had a Sufi teacher. The quotation above suggests there is a “great bond” we have with our souls that allows us to know, as an internal felt reality, what is the “right thing” to do that keeps us “pale” in the face of wrongdoing. A bond here refers to a legally binding document – a metaphor for an internal deal or agreement with the better or higher part of our nature. So, given free will, ethical ambitionwe all have the capacity to ask an “invisible hand” to cancel this bond and tear it to pieces, leaving us free to do what we want, when we want, to whom we want OR we have to manage our ego’s and our capacity to inflate very carefully…

The Dangers of Too Little:

Who am I to make a difference?

One potent aspect of our difficult reality today is the apparent reluctance of good people to do the right thing. What is it that keeps some of us, as Jung said, “Walking around as if we are wearing shoes too small for us?” Why do so many of us, all too often, not dare to stand tall and be counted in the great struggles that abound around us?

One half of the myth of Macbeth shows us the path to over reaching ambition; yet some of us know that it takes a kind of courage to push ourselves forward to the front of the pack, jostling for position and eager for reward. It takes a certain kind of selfishness too, an “I deserve it and I am going to get it” attitude that some seek to emulate while others avoid at all costs. Some of us, in a reaction against the ambition we see around us, choose to avoid the competition and go in the opposite direction, holding ourselves almost willfully back, keeping our heads resolutely under the parapet, assuming that all those who raise theirs are megalomaniacs. And where exactly does that leave us? Paradoxically, with the leaders we have rather than the leaders we need.

A fundamentally important issue for all of us alive at this time is to discover our unique, appropriate level of ambition

ethical ambitionThe other half of the Macbeth myth, realised through the character of Malcolm, a prince who first runs away but survives to become a steward king, encourages us to find appropriate ambition – the “right thing to do”. Without this those who have the ethics are all too often demoted to silent witnesses and ciphers. “All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” So many people who think they know better than those in positions of power choose to stay in their shells, apparently content with an occasional outburst of “I told you so” when things take a turn for the worse in the world. How can we encourage more of these folks to find their voice and their gift at this crucial time in global history?

I believe that a fundamentally important issue for all of us alive at this time is to discover our unique, appropriate level of ambition. We certainly need to figure out how to better manage the over-ambitious natures of the selfish few who get their kicks from power, prestige, obscene wealth and fame – but how are we going to ramp up the ambitions of the unselfish many who get kicked by power, outshone by prestige, outmaneuvered by wealth and outvoted by those in search of their 15 minutes? Surely we too need our version of worthy goals, ambitious targets, as yet unrealised dreams – and we need an ethical centre from which to operate, an internal “great bond” that keeps us pale not only in the face of obvious wrongdoing but also in the face of withdrawal and fearful submission. For all too many of the “good people” in the modern world it is not a case of too much, but too little too late. The great brains of the Oxford University James Martin 21st Century School contend that, given current trends of industrial waste, population growth and biological warfare potential, there is a high percentage probability that the human race will not survive the century we are living in. If we are to confound their predictions surely we must find a way to encourage apparently ordinary men and women to step up, to raise heads above the parapet, to find the niche, however seemingly narrow, where courage is called for and appropriate ambition required.

Imagining the future can make it real

To attempt this, we need to expand our moral imaginations; the human race is capable of so much, has so much latent evolutionary potential to be stewards of the planet that sustains us, but so often we treat it as an object, something to be owned, mined and undermined, flown over until a volcano opens its mouth to decide otherwise. ethical ambitionGreat myths and inspiring stories can inform this expansion of our moral imagination, imagining the future can make it real. The US TV series “The West Wing”, created by Aaron Sorkin along with a handful of Bill Clinton’s close advisors, created a dream-like version of what the Clinton administration could have been, if Clinton had faced a real crisis or kept his better parts in his pants. But the final series created an unlikely contender for the White House, an outsider by race and experience who, after facing many trials, won the day. The then unelected senator on whom this character was based? Barack Obama. The imagined can make it real, by stretching our own image of ourselves we can make it more likely to happen in reality.

So where is your ethical ambition, now? Is it well tended and watered? Is it starving for attention? What exactly are you doing with the garden that was entrusted to you? As poet David Whyte wisely asks “What shape waits in the seed of you to grow and spread its branches against a future sky?” The Findhorn Foundation is committed to finding alternative ways to live a life of meaning and balance. This July my colleagues, Robin Alfred and Michael Boyle, and I will be running a week-long intensive in this inspiring environment to help interested participants develop their courageous leadership and ethical ambition. If it feels right for you please check out the booking details now – places will be limited to ensure maximum impact.

Richard Olivier

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