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What We Can Learn From Sture Linnér

Sweden is today a society riven by discord. The country is missing a uniting figure who, combining humanitarian wisdom and political skill, can lead his nation through a crisis. The non-partisan leader that Sweden stands in need of ought to be able to be drawn from the same strong cultural tradition that was able to produce a remarkable personality like Sture Linnér (1917-2010). Boundary-defying man of action, humble academic athlete and kindly gentleman, Sture Linnér’s life’s odyssey spans an astounding range, from a professorship in Greek, via a pioneering role in Swedish big business, to diplomacy alongside UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld. In him intellect and passion were united as in no other.

Sture is above all remembered as Sweden’s foremost classicist. Just weeks before his death, still full of vitality, he gave an outline under the title of “The joys of knowledge” of the key moments in the genesis of “Alexandria’s scientific miracle”, the famous library of antiquity whose revival had long been his vision and which he could now see be reborn from out of the dust of antiquity. In his article, Linnér describes the world’s first university, the Mouseion in Alexandria, as an unbounded, cross-disciplinary community of humanists and scientists and as a “research center under the protection of the muses”. Getting to the bottom of things, right down to their original essence, was always Sture Linnér's hallmark. It was the depth of his studies of the foundations of language which laid the basis for the tremendous breadth of vision with which he came to cultivate his truly global interests. And he who is able to discern the common roots of phenomena from widely distant fields also has a handle on the present and on our future. Therein lay the power of his boundary-defying wisdom.

What was it that drove him constantly to switch over to new tracks? He writes in his autobiographical Min Odyssé (My Odyssey, 1982) of disquiet and restlessness in the aftermath of war, about his eagerness to discover new horizons beyond the one-dimensional world of academia. In the 1950s he took up challenges in industry and in the Swedish Employers’ Association. In 1960 he was handpicked by Dag Hammarskjöld to lead the civilian part of the UN mission in Congo, and boarded the plane that crashed and killed Hammarskjöld before the latter decided that one of them should remain in place in Kinshasa. In such milieux his ability to use language as an incisive tool in the analysis of reality became a key asset, and negotiators – both in the business world and in the international sphere – can learn much from his deep respect for words and their power through the ages. Not least, it was, in his estimation, honesty which offered a way out of a deadlock. His hope-inspiring affirmation that all conflicts are in principle possible to solve peacefully is of course an admirable tenet which rests upon deeply rooted wisdom. To see a possibility where others see problems is a negotiator’s first step on the way to a solution. That his unshakeable faith in human value remained firm across all the various settings and throughout all the diverse problems that he was confronted with is, I believe, a testament to his real passion. The careful consideration in difficult circumstances which marked his attitude towards both those in his immediate company and those affected by his decisions tells the same story.

Sture Linnér's literary prowess has been testified to by prominent figures in the area. Yet his sensitivity to the intonation that lends meaning to speech sounds and ability to harness its poetic force in works such as Den Gyllene Lyran (The Golden Lyre, 1989) was – I would like to maintain – in its essence deeply and primarily musical. Musical and literary styles of thought often find expression in totally different types of personality and it is unusual for both to develop within one and the same individual. But he who has immersed himself in Ancient Greek culture – where notions such as mousiké are central – understands how and why words and tones, language and thought, ultimately flow from the same source. Sture Linnér quite simply united among his gifts the highest talent for language with a deep musicality. Our conversations on music – from the most ancient musical keys on which our Western tone system is based to Haydn, Penderecki and Bartók – are sorely missed.

He who, like Sture Linnér, works against the background of such rich experiences from history’s various sources gains wisdom by extracting the common human element from amongst the cultural repertoire. An understanding of human behaviour, both now and in the past, provides a basis for determining how we are to proceed here and now. Cultural history thereby serves as a necessary frame of reference for both politics and the natural sciences – and represents a precondition for the expanded global horizon required in the present era.

A problem now affecting Sweden is uneven recovery. The kind of fertile soil that would create a multi-disciplinary talent of Sture’s dignity is missing in today’s society. Political power-holders are unwilling to hand over the initiative to the free play of public opinion. This latter is best achieved by the promotion of precisely the kind of critical and creative dialogue which has the classical agora as a model. It is also clear that a higher degree of competence in decision making must be built upon multidisciplinary objectivity. Sture Linnér’s approach is an example of just such a thorough, quality-ensuring process. If, that is, the wide gulf between such a model and the current practice with shallow, quick-fix consultants in unholy alliance with populist pundits can at all be bridged with the help of Sture’s recipe.

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An exceptional figure in Swedish cultural life he was, and an irreplaceable model in the noble art of leadership. Sture Linnér’s oeuvre will forever exert a wholesome effect in society as an example worthy of imitation for its key actors. Sweden should feel gratitude towards the last atlant with real wingspan on the country's Parnassus, for the wonderful memories he gave so many, for his wisdom and his contagious zest for life.