In his provocative book Ideas Have Consequences, Richard Weaver offered some poignant observations regarding modern times. Western man, he wrote, has fallen prey to a “falsified picture” of the world, characterized by materialism and an egotism which assumes that “man’s destiny in the world is not to perfect himself but to lean back in sensual enjoyment.” Like spoiled children, Weaver claims, our generation can’t think beyond the limits of our own sovereign wills. Sociologist Amitai Etzioni called it the “hollowing of America”—the widespread, passionate search for self-fulfillment, the egregious preoccupation with “inner self.”

Christopher Dawson said it earlier and perhaps more forcefully in his Religion and the Modern State. “Never before in the history of the world,” he wrote, “has civilization been so completely secularized, so confident in its own powers and so sufficient to itself as our own.” He would have no quarrel with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who in his 1978 Harvard address declared that our moral poverty results from the mistake of “anthropocentricity . . . with man as the center of everything that exists.”

Gerhart Niemeyer calls modern times “The Age of the Autonomous Man,” an age when feelings, imagination, the subjective, and the will prevail. Having dispensed with norms, hierarchies, and structures, one no longer even asks the question Malcolm Muggeridge described as the most vital of our times: “Is God in charge of our affairs, or are we?” That issue is settled, a priori.

The result, Muggeridge notes, is not a happy age, “perhaps particularly for its greater ostensible beneficiaries. The parts of the world where the means of happiness in material and sensual terms are most plentiful . . . are also the places where despair, mental sickness, and other twentieth-century ills are most in evidence. Sex, fanned by public erotica, underpinned by the birth-control pill and legalized abortion, is a primrose path leading to satiety and disgust; the rich are usually either wretched or mad; the successful plod relentlessly on to prove to the world and to themselves that their success is worth having; violence, collective and individual, bids fair to destroy us all and what remains of our civilization.” Muggeridge never minced words.

Professor Weaver suggests that the price of restoration from our sensuality and pseudo-self-sufficiency must be to push aside the fetish for material wellbeing and success-at-any-price in favor of a nobler ideal. Today even the dean of a major business school, no foe of prosperity, is sympathetic. “I dearly wish,” said Dean Burton Malkiel of the Yale School of Organization and Management recently, “we could get away from the notion that it is simply your salary that is your scorecard in life.”

Ironically that higher ideal may be found in a sector of society quite familiar to Mr. Malkiel. Businesses of every kind are much enamored these days with a demanding ideal they call “the pursuit of excellence.” Devotion to this pursuit is so widespread as to qualify as a form of “natural religion” to which everyone can pay homage without the snickers that accompany talk of things divine.

Business analysts have nearly enshrined the pursuit, boardrooms ponder over it, managers can’t get enough of it, newspapers carry daily columns about how to achieve it, and books about “the pursuit” sell into the millions of copies. The first of these, In Search of Excellence, is already well over the four million mark, making it the Gone With the Wind of its genre and a best-seller even in college bookstores.

Unfortunately, the pursuit of excellence suffers from severe deficiencies as a religion, not the least its potential to magnify rather than solve the egocentricity of our times. Nevertheless, the broad acceptance of the ideal suggests a sweeping power, an enormous ability to inspire and motivate, an inherent “meaningfulness” in an era so in need of meaning.

The excellence books point to a revealing aspect of the world of commerce, namely the practical desire to excel. Extending and getting beyond oneself is at the very heart of the business ethos. And this desire gives hope of deliverance from the ultimately self-defeating absorption with self that lies at the root of our modern dilemma. Reflecting a universal and not unwholesome urge to “dominate the earth and subdue it,” the desire to excel may define a new “bottom line” for the world of business, as the primacy and the excellence of the worker takes precedence over the excellence of the work itself.

Thomas Watson Jr. of IBM said the most important asset of business is the individual. The excellence books, though dedicated to improving corporate performance and return on shareholders’ equity, clearly recognize the value of this asset. There is hardly a more pervasive ideal in excellent companies, they repeatedly point out, than respect for the individual.

But paying that respect doesn’t just happen. To do it, the true pursuer must be other-directed and people-oriented. He—or she—must be empathetic, enthusiastic, respectful, diligent, courageous, fair, forgiving, patient. Creating Excellence, a national best-seller, deems this latter quality worthy of an entire chapter! And he or she must be able to love, all of which demands much self-mastery, much getting beyond one’s self-interests.

One popular excellence book recalled the story of Trammel Crow, head of the vast industrial real-estate empire. After speaking to the Harvard Business School, Crow was asked: “What is the secret of your success?” “Love,” said Crow. Or as famous chef Andre Soltner put it, “I cook for you from the heart . . . but the waiter must serve with love. Otherwise the food is nothing.”

The famed business analyst Peter Drucker noted that the managerial task, which requires “working” the human being, always means developing him. “This applies,” emphasizes Drucker, ” . . . not alone to the man who is being managed, but also the manager] Whether he develops his subordinates in the right direction, helps them to grow and become bigger and richer persons, will directly determine whether he himself will develop, will grow or wither, become richer or become impoverished, improve or deteriorate.” Good management, according to Drucker, is quite other-directed, the antithesis of Weaver’s egotistic Western man, and self-fulfilling in the best sense.

Drucker knows well the importance of business, and especially the qualities and virtues of its practitioners. “The invention of organization as society’s tool for accomplishing social purposes may well be as important to the history of man as was the invention of the specialization of labor for individuals ten thousand years ago.” And the principle underlying it is not that “private vices make public benefits” (Governor Cuomo, take note). It is, says Drucker, that “personal strengths make social benefits.”

The pursuit of excellence, then, demands personal strengths and virtues. And in so demanding it can bring the worker to a fuller development because it challenges the impact of his work not only upon the workplace, but upon himself. Such actions far transcend whatever advancements they may bring to the workplace precisely because the worker is not just producer. He or she is, first and foremost, person. Put another way, man is primary and superior to the task at hand because in working, man is not only making or building something, he is also making himself. And what greater product—what greater work of art—can man produce, with grace, than his very self.

As unaccustomed as we may be to think of work as primarily self-development (for centuries it has been associated with production of one kind or another), it is nonetheless true. Work is essentially for man. Man is the purpose of work, not vice versa. Work is the central activity through which a person grows—through free, decisive action—into that which he may become. Work is a good thing for man because through it he not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also grows as a human being.

The battle for growth in “personal equity” is fought—and the freedom of self-dominion won—only if that worker can see beyond the seductiveness of work’s allurements, especially the pursuit of wealth, honor, and self-aggrandizement, and realize that it is what a man is, not what he has, that counts. As Britain’s Prince Charles put it at Harvard’s commencement last year: “When all is said and done, a good man . . . is a nobler work than a good technologist.”

A good man or woman is a noble work indeed. But this personal excellence depends on both his actions and his intentions. What a man is depends upon what he does—and particularly why he does it. In this business, motives determine results, and motives can be manifold. Pride lurks everywhere in the human condition. Yet the noblest of motives, manifesting God’s glory, can spring up in surprising places. Witness an excerpt from Chicago Bears football coach Mike Ditka’s pre-game Super Bowl prayer with his players: “Heavenly Father, we are grateful for this opportunity and we thank you for the talents you have given us. . . . Father, we ask that you give us the courage and the commitment to use the talents to the best of our ability, so that we may give the glory back to you.”

Andre Gide reminded us that the terrible thing about the pride of life and sensual allurements is that “we can never make ourselves drunk enough.” But even unbridled aspirations point to our transcendence and our spiritual needs. To the imperative—thwarted if self-directed—to glorify Someone beyond self. To a deeply seated desire to not only have more, but to be more.

Homo sapiens is, after all, very different from the animals. Family aside, Noah’s companions in the ark were perfect of their kind, but unfree. We are free, but unfinished. There is a breach in each of us, something incomplete that opens us to the infinite and causes our perpetual anxiety and dissatisfaction. No doubt because we are attracted not only to true, good, and beautiful things but also to Truth and Beauty and Goodness themselves. And we have yet to finish the race.

So in the noble pursuit for professional excellence and the undeniable human goods which it brings—we ought not to overlook the potential it has for realizing the good, the true, and the beautiful within us. Traditionally put, the pursuit of excellence can help bring one to personal maturity, to the “goods of the soul,” to self-completion, to virtue.

The gnawing weaknesses in our national character—the pervasiveness of drug abuse (Americans now consume 60 percent of the world’s production of illegal drugs), the proliferation of pornography and of white-collar crime, the breakdown of the family—must be addressed not only in social, but in personal terms, and in personal virtue. Because whatever the contributing social factors, these infirmities emanate from the person, and it is there they must ultimately be cured.

The doctrine of virtue is an ancient and unfortunately obscured one. It was already taken for granted by the contemporaries of Socrates. Agathon, in Plato’s Symposium, organized his ideas around the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. This intellectual framework was one of the great discoveries in the history of man’s self-understanding; and it continues—despite its attenuated form—to be part and parcel of our Western tradition. The doctrine of virtue speaks to both the kind of being a human person is as a consequence of his createdness and the kind of being he ought to strive toward—by being prudent, just, brave, and temperate.

The very nature of virtue is to strengthen, to perfect. Virtues provide strength, they bestow character, and they permit—to the extent this fickle world will allow—happiness, because they empower their holders to live temperately, nobly, truthfully. The early Greeks were enthusiastic about the notion of virtue because of their discovery—needed again in our own times—that happiness requires living a rational life, with all its many relationships beyond self And that rationality demands self-dominion and the strength to make choices that are true to reality rather than to pride, passion, false hope, or excessive desire.

But virtue, like muscle, requires opposition and resistance in order to develop, which is why the workplace—be that carpenter bench, computer terminal, or kitchen—is a gymnasium of virtue. All work situations present a constant challenge to improve. To make and build oneself, to grow in character through rational, upright conduct. To put things in order. To give and relate to others. To make friends, to encourage, to empathize, to understand, to love. This is still worker, but not so much as maker or doer or entrepreneur. This is worker becoming himself . . . becoming truly man.

The professional person is powerfully motivated today by the search for excellence. Let us hope that search can transcend the desire to just have more, and extend to “being more.” Let us hope that search will strike at a deeper chord, especially in those hearts graced to know that the full development of one’s abilities in the pursuit of excellence, the true pursuit of happiness, involves a personal—a moral—as well as a professional effort. And if that man or woman is receptive to the Judeo-Christian tradition, he or she realizes that the rewards of this effort are imperishable.