The Netflix superhit sees chess not as a grand, global metaphor but as a path to one woman’s self-healing.
Ballast on the Ship of State: Statesmanship as Human Excellence
The founding fathers of modern republicanism had no qualms about appealing to the crucial role of the “founder” or “legislator” in establishing and sustaining free and lawful political communities. The American Founders, for example, read their Cicero and Plutarch and were no doubt inspired by the accounts of political nobility found in the pages of both immensely influential thinkers and writers. Their own noble deeds partake of classical greatness of soul as much as the purported “realism” of distinctively modern political thought. But it is undoubtedly the case that they aimed to establish political institutions where “power checked power,” institutions that would make political greatness less necessary, if not superfluous. Is this one reason why the study of statesmanship has fallen on hard times? Were they too successful?
Perhaps statesmanship of the noblest and truest kind has always been associated with crises of one sort or another: Solon addressing civil strife and class conflict in Athens in the sixth century BC; Pericles steering a middle path between imperial grandeur and prudent restraint in resisting the expansion of the Athenian Empire at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War; Cicero using all the arts of rhetoric and statesmanship in an ultimately failed attempt to save the remnants of Roman republicanism from the threat of Caesarian despotism; Burke eloquently warning defenders of ordered liberty against the proto-totalitarianism of Jacobin France; Washington leading the American people to their rightful station among the peoples of the earth and governing the new republic with an austere republican dignity; Lincoln preserving the Union and putting an end to the evil of chattel slavery at the same time; Churchill eloquently and firmly defending liberty and law, and all the achievements of the “English-speaking peoples,” against the dreadful barbarism of Nazism. Such statesmanship is, always and everywhere, a rare political achievement and an equally infrequent if admirable manifestation of the highest possibilities of the human soul.
Classical authors were right to understand such statesmanship as an elevated standard against which all political action can be judged. The thoughtful or reflective statesman exercises what the contemporary French political philosopher Pierre Manent calls “commanding practical reason,” not arbitrary power or a plan to satisfy the lowest impulses of his soul. Every political community needs such commanding practical reason, an authoritative exercise of judgment and foresight at the service of the common good. But the doctrinaire egalitarianism and relativism that many today confuse with democracy do not readily allow for such qualitative differences to be acknowledged and affirmed.
Elementary distinctions “natural” to political life—the distinctions between authority and authoritarianism, reason and will, nobility and baseness, domination and the mutual accountability inherent in free political life—are effaced in the name of a terrible simplification. Arguments about “the advantageous and the just,” as Aristotle so memorably put it in the opening chapters of his Politics, are summarily reduced to mere struggles for “power.” This effacement of politics as a moral science goes hand in hand with a toxic egalitarian moralism that feels free to repudiate our civilized inheritance and to judge all thought and action in the light of the overlapping determinisms of “race, class, and gender.” In truth, there can be no authentic political sphere, no veritable “public space,” when thought and action are reduced to cruel and inexpiable struggles for power and domination. And whatever the antinomian left claims, the messianic struggle for “justice” will lead only to mayhem, violence, and tyranny if the goods of life are said to have no foundation in the human soul or the natural order of things. One cannot promote justice on the “willful” premises of Machiavellian (and Nietzschean) modernity. If one begins with nihilistic premises, if one reduces every argument to a pretense for domination and exploitation, one necessarily ends with the self-enslavement of man. A barely concealed nihilism cannot provide a foundation for common humanity, the civic common good, or mutual respect and accountability. In the end, it can only negate our civilized inheritance despite the perfectionist or utopian veneer that invariably accompanies it.
True and False Realism
Modern political philosophy and modern social science thus veer incoherently between false realism and an idealism that acknowledges no constraints on the power of the human will to remake human nature and society. Through sinuous but logical paths, modern realism gives way to a totalitarian assault on the very “givenness” of the human condition, an assault on human nature itself and on all the virtues that define the well-ordered soul. What is needed is a return to true realism, to a moral conception of politics that is fully realistic but that also acknowledges that the good, the search for legitimate authority or even the best regime, the exercise of the practical virtues—courage, moderation, prudence, and justice—are as “real” as, and certainly more ennobling and humanizing than, the reckless and groundless pursuit of power as an end in itself. As the French anti-totalitarian political thinker Raymond Aron wrote in his 1965 book Democracy and Totalitarianism, Machiavellian “realism,” in both its original and vulgarized forms, is imbued with a hidden or unacknowledged “metaphysic” that dogmatically reduces the philosophy, ideas, and justifications at the heart of real politics to an underlying will to power that alone is said to really move the souls of men. In this view, “The merits of a political formula do not lie in its worth or its truth, but in its usefulness. Ideas are merely weapons, methods of combat used by men engaged in the battle; but in battle the only goal is to win.”
Aron wryly observes that “to decree that man is a futile plaything of his passions is no less philosophical than to give a meaning to human existence.” Aron essentially endorses a phenomenological approach to the study of political things, one that does not assume without critical examination that the “essence of politics” can be found in an undifferentiated “struggle for power.” A truly phenomenological approach to the study of politics and statecraft rejects both cynicism and dogmatism, according to Aron. Unlike the “false realists” who are “obsessed by the struggle for power,” the true realist does not neglect another aspect of reality: “the search for legitimate power, for recognized authority, for the best regime.” Such a student of politics fully appreciates the rough and tumble of political life, but he or she doesn’t reduce it simplistically and dogmatically to an all-encompassing struggle for power. In Democracy and Totalitarianism, Aron gets to the heart of the matter:
Men have never thought of politics as exclusively defined by the struggle for power. Anyone who does not see that there is a “struggle for power” element is naïve; anyone who sees nothing but this aspect is a false realist. The reality that we study is a human one. Part of this human reality is the question relating to the legitimacy of authority.
Aron’s own study of political sociology, of comparative political regimes and ideologies, ultimately owes more to Montesquieu and Tocqueville, or to Aristotle, than to the power politics advocated in distinctive but complementary ways by both Machiavelli, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, and Max Weber, at the beginning of the twentieth (even if Aron was a serious, and sometimes sympathetic, student and scholar of both thinkers).
Let us now turn to the Roman statesman and political philosopher Cicero, whose thoughts and deeds provide much ballast for a morally serious and authentically realistic political science that avoids the twin temptations of dogmatism and cynicism and that remains firmly attentive to the virtues and goods that give life to free and decent politics. Cicero’s moral realism provides an ample and accurate account of the motives at the heart of true statesmanship; the false realism that dominates modern or “Machiavellian” political science can only explain away what decent men and women cannot help but admire. What is needed today is not a return to classical politics per se, but an openness to the judicious mix of realism and moral aspiration that informed the classical political philosophies of Aristotle and Cicero, in particular. Unlike Plato, whose paramount theme was the superiority of the theoretical life, Aristotle and Cicero saw in statesmanship informed by political philosophy the highest practical human way of life, at once good for the soul and good for the city. They are philosophical partisans of statesmanship and political nobility par excellence.
Cicero’s Model of the Magnanimous Statesman
The recovery of the dignity of the political vocation, of the distinction between the arbitrary exercise of power and honorable ambition that serves the common good, depends upon the restoration of distinctions that have been obfuscated by modern political philosophy and modern social science. As Cicero noted in the first book of On Duties (written in 44 BC, shortly before his death at the hands of Mark Antony), certain philosophers destroy the moral grounds of statesmanship by undermining the intrinsic link between the highest goods for human beings and the exercise of the moral and intellectual virtues. If vulgar pleasure or shameless self-seeking, or even a more high-minded identification of philosophy with refined pleasure, becomes the great desideratum, then there is no reason for a citizen, statesman, or human being to “cultivate friendship, justice, or liberality.” Power and pleasure become the exclusive ends and means of human and political life, and the distinction between the honorable statesman and the rapacious tyrant is eliminated in one fell swoop. This is one reason why Cicero despised the Epicureans, whose reduction of the good to the pleasant encouraged an abdication of moral and political responsibility on the part of the one, the few, and the many. If a thinker, or leader, or citizen for that matter, identifies pain as “the greatest ill” and pleasure as “the greatest good,” he has no reason to be brave or courageous or to make sacrifices for his country.
As Mary Ann Glendon has well put it, Cicero was that rare political man who combined “the noble sort of ambition with . . . intense attraction to the eros of the mind.” He was at once a statesman and a moral and political philosopher, even if he generally turned to writing his philosophical works when his “political fortunes were at a low ebb.” His writings defend both the indispensability of philosophical reflection and the greatness of spirit inherent in noble statesmanship. He sometimes suggested that the life of the statesman informed by philosophy and right reason was the highest vocation open to human beings. However, “The Dream of Scipio,” at the end of Cicero’s Republic, with its reminder of the ultimate insignificance of human things from the perspective of the cosmos as a whole, seems to point in a rather different direction. In any case, Cicero, more than Plato and Aristotle, provides the most substantial and elevated argument for the inherent choice-worthiness of the life of the thoughtful and reflective statesman who combines greatness of soul with moderation and self-control. Cicero’s beau ideal of a statesman is opposed to all narrow partisanship (which sunders the unity of the political community and, in extremis, can lead to civil war) and to self-seeking at the expense of the common good.
The true statesman for Cicero embodies in the depths of his soul what the tradition calls the cardinal virtues—courage, temperance, prudence, justice—as well as a commitment to political liberty or self-government and a principled and passionate opposition to the negation of civilized life that is tyranny in its various forms. Cicero’s statesman-as-thinker prefers peace to war, magnanimity to peevish resentment, clemency to the perpetual aggravation of the hatreds and divisions that destroy the moral integrity of the civic community. But if he prefers peace to war, domestic courage to martial courage, as Cicero calls it, if he appreciates that in the best circumstances arms should “yield to the toga,” he is no pacifist or advocate of peace at any price. Themistocles, who saved Athens against Xerxes and the Persians at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC, is rightly esteemed. But Solon, who gave Athens decent laws that safeguarded the rights and prerogatives of both the rich and the poor, the few and the many, “must be judged no less superb than the former.” “Honorable conduct” reflects strength of spirit far more than strength of body, a cultivation of “urbane affairs” over “martial ones.” In a republic in the process of being transformed into an empire, in a political culture that valued military prowess and heroism above all, Cicero reminded his readers that war was never an end in itself but an instrument to be used prudently and justly, if at all possible, to safeguard the achievements of a free and civilized political order. To rashly turn to battle, to unthinkingly prefer war to peace, “befits a certain savagery and is similar to brutes.”
Still, Cicero reminds us, “when circumstance and necessity demand, we must physically fight it out to the end, preferring death to slavery and disgrace.” An honorable statesman, “a truly magnanimous and courageous man,” should prefer “affability” and “high-mindedness” to “useless and hateful peevishness.” But Cicero acknowledged that “gentleness and clemency must be commended only as far as severity may also be employed for the sake of the commonwealth.” Cicero’s honorable statesman is equally distant from the amoral self-assertion of the Nietzschean “Overman,” contemptuous as he is of his inferiors and of the deep aversion to the legitimate exercise of authority by the contemporary humanitarian. His standard is the “honestum”—the fine, the noble, the honorable—at the service of civilized liberty. He resists the sirens calls of both hardness—tyranny, cruelty, and an immoral power politics—and softness, which is tenderness, compassion, or generosity bereft of any deep understanding of human nature or of the “inventiveness of wickedness,” as Edmund Burke once so suggestively called it.
Half-classical modern democratic statesmen such as Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill embodied important aspects of this Ciceronian ideal. Their examples both vivify and illustrate this ideal and reveal it to be an enduring model of humane and tough-minded statecraft. They lived in an era strikingly different from Cicero’s. In the first half of the twentieth century, modern technology and totalitarian ideologies made total war a real possibility, while creature comforts and a democratic ideology at the service of enlightenment, progress, and cosmopolitanism made pacifism a much more powerful temptation. Christianity had undoubtedly softened mores, quite significantly in the long run, even if it strengthened sectarian animosities during the wars of religion. A debilitating relativism that accompanied modern thought weakened the clear-cut distinctions between civilization and barbarism, freedom and totalitarianism. As Churchill noted in The Gathering Storm, the first volume of The Second World War, democracies had a difficult time cultivating and sustaining a coherent policy or strategy for even a relatively modest period of time. So, in a late modern world tempted by passivity, pacifism, and humanitarian illusions, the Ciceronian statesman must spend as much time warning against pacifist illusions as in reminding warrior republics of the ultimate superiority of the urbane virtues to military courage. The ideal remains the same, greatness tethered to measure, action informed by high prudence (as opposed to mere calculation), the moral virtues at the service of the civic common good, action informed by prudent reflection and a coherent vision of the well-ordered soul. But the emphases may differ as the arts of prudence are applied to sometimes dramatically different circumstances.
Napoleon: Greatness Without Moderation
De Gaulle famously remarked in The Edge of the Sword, his 1932 book on military and political leadership, that no statesman worth his salt is inspired by a vision of “evangelical perfection.” The Sermon on the Mount cannot provide practical guidance for a statesman imbued with a sense of personal and political honor and committed to the defense of one’s homeland and the civilized patrimony of the West. And yet de Gaulle never considered power politics, military expansion, or personal ambition to be ends in themselves. As his treatment of Napoleon Bonaparte in the central chapter of his 1938 book, France and Her Army, illustrates, he faulted Napoleon for failing to appreciate the very serious limits of military glory. Napoleon’s prodigious military and political successes undermined his capacity to acknowledge limits and, as a result, his political plans for the French domination of Europe “increasingly lost all touch with reality.” After the peace of Tilsit in 1807, he bled the French dry and pursued a path that left her “crushed, invaded, drained of blood and courage, smaller than when he had taken control of her destinies, condemned to ill-drawn frontiers.” De Gaulle was enough of a romantic to be genuinely awed by Napoleon’s prodigious career and superhuman military virtues. But in the end, de Gaulle’s outlook was rather more classical than romantic: his admiration for Napoleon did not get in the way of his final judgment that Napoleon’s contempt for limits and restraints finally led “outraged reason” to exact “her inexorable vengeance.”
Students of de Gaulle’s thought and action such as myself and the French historian Patrice Gueniffey have stressed his self-conscious efforts, indebted to both classical and Christian thought and sensibilities, to avoid any disassociation of grandeur and “measure” at the theoretical or practical levels. As Gueniffey helpfully points out in his splendid new book, Napoleon and De Gaulle: Heroes and History, de Gaulle was a patriot or nationalist whose fidelity to France was “tempered by liberal and Christian values.” And the Gaullist vision of “greatness of soul,” the so-called man of character, explicitly repudiated what he contemptuously called in his 1946 Bayeux address “the adventure of dictatorship.” That false path necessarily culminated, de Gaulle thought, in “disaster and bloodshed,” destroying civilized liberty along the way. The path of Napoleon—with its unilateral emphasis on military glory and power politics, and its contempt for limits and law—was definitely not de Gaulle’s way. De Gaulle could not imagine true political greatness without the exercise of the cardinal virtues at the service of a broader fidelity to country, faith, civilization, even as he acknowledged the role of deception in statecraft, too. De Gaulle was a modern statesman-thinker with the soul of a classic. He believed that true courage was at the service of ends and purposes that far transcended personal ambition shorn of genuine nobility.
Classical Honor Meets Christian Humility
De Gaulle was also a Catholic whose soul fruitfully oscillated between the requirements of classical honor and Christian fidelity to restraints and limits, finding that space characterized by the elevating moral obligations inherent in civilization as such. For his part, Churchill admired Christianity from afar, combining the Ciceronian virtues with a genuine respect for liberal and Christian civilization. He will always be remembered as the indomitable leader whose eloquent and spirited rhetoric gave the English every reason to resist the future offered by Nazi despotism: “the abyss of a new Dark Age, made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science,” as he said in his “Finest Hour” speech of June 18, 1940. Churchill was the indefatigable enemy of appeasement, the noble statesman who saw that pusillanimity before Hitler’s soulless pagan barbarism would only bring dishonor and defeat to an old, proud, and free people and would risk the survival of civilization itself. Churchill knew, as Cicero, Washington, Burke, and de Gaulle also knew and appreciated, that freedom could not be sustained without a recovery of “martial health and moral vigor as in the olden time.” These eloquent, if seemingly archaic, words are from a famous speech of October 5, 1938, lamenting Chamberlain’s capitulation at Munich and the false reassurance of peace this had given the British people.
Churchill, too, was a Ciceronian who loved peace and preferred it to war, as Herodotus said all reasonable human beings should do. His love of true peace, his disdain for tyranny and the totalitarian subjugation of the soul, led him, in every fiber of his being, to resist the new and terrible world order proffered by Hitler and his minions. But it should be noted that Churchill was not a neoconservative in foreign policy avant la lettre. Like Burke, he knew prudential judgment must address the concrete particularity of great moments of history. Not every moment is a repetition of Munich 1938. Sometimes good sense and prudential reasoning demand restraint, especially if one is dealing with a sane regime still informed by civilized values. At the end of his political career, worried about the delicate character of the so-called nuclear balance of terror, Churchill called for a reasonable accommodation between the Western democracies and the post-Stalin leadership of the Soviet Union. We know from his “Iron Curtain Speech” of March 5, 1946, that Churchill, a lifelong anti-Bolshevik, wanted to address the Soviet Union from a position of strength. He truly lamented the loss of liberties in the great nations and states of East-Central Europe for whom he had the deepest respect and affection. But Churchill, too, finally preferred the “urbane virtues” to the “martial ones.” And the specter of nuclear annihilation made the necessity of a broader “European settlement” even more urgent in his mind. But because he was a friend of peace, he was willing to make war where principle and prudence, and genuine honor, demanded.
Classical Honor and the Sermon on the Mount
A brief excursus on the closing paragraphs of chapter 17 of The Gathering Storm, “The Tragedy of Munich,” will serve to highlight the moderation and good sense that underlay Churchill’s spirited resistance to Nazi tyranny and imperialism, and to misplaced efforts to appease a malignant regime whose ambitions knew no limits. In the spirit of Cicero, Churchill fully acknowledges “meekness and humility,” rather than underlying bellicosity, often point toward mutual understanding and accommodation between human beings and nations. Wars, Churchill says, have often been needlessly precipitated by “firebrands.” “How many misunderstandings which led to wars could have been removed by temporizing! How often countries fought cruel wars and then after a few years of peace found themselves not only friends but allies.” In most cases, Churchill recommends the path of restraint, of accommodation and self-limitation. But, like Charles de Gaulle, Churchill rejects the applicability of the Sermon on the Mount (“the last word in Christian ethics”) to the conduct of statesmen in foreign affairs. Churchill is wrong to think that Christ was speaking politically in the Sermon on the Mount or in any way recommending pacifism to those in positions of political responsibility. There is no evidence that the Prince of Peace espoused pacifism in politics, or was providing anything other than the demanding requirements of discipleship from a radically perfectionist or eschatological point of view. Still, Churchill is not wrong that there are enduring and abiding tensions between classical honor, which he esteems and endorses, and Christian ethics understood as beneficent mercy and at times great forbearance in the face of evil.
The path of honor that Churchill ends up recognizing would entail fidelity to democratic Czechoslovakia, an ally of France (and indirectly Britain), as she was threatened by the totalitarian wolf that was Nazi Germany. In truth, the mixture of fidelity, forbearance, good will, classical honor, and moral realism advocated by Churchill, and at the heart of his thought and action during the dangerous years of the 1930s, was informed by both Ciceronian greatness of soul and a love of peace. The former melds together greatness and moderation; the latter, peace, resists pacifism and in Churchill’s case owes much to Christian chivalry and the traditions of the English (and European) gentleman. In a word, modern ideological abstractions such as power and power politics, Machiavellian (pseudo-) realism, and charismatic leadership, not to mention facile confusions of authority with domination (something common to the Machtpolitiker Max Weber and the nihilist antinomian Michel Foucault), played no role in shaping Churchill’s thought and action. A fuller examination of the statecraft and political reflection of such divergent yet altogether noble statesmen as Edmund Burke, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Václav Havel, and Nelson Mandela would establish the same point: the reductive and cynical philosophy of power, pleasure, and charisma can say nothing of substance about the thought, virtues, motives, and public spiritedness that inform the noble statesman who self-consciously attempts to conjugate thought and action, greatness and moderation, while eschewing power and pleasure as ends in themselves. Classical and Christian political philosophy can make sense of the statesman as thinker, of magnanimity informed by an appreciation of limits and self-restraint; modern political philosophy and modern social science can only explain away such statesmen.
Magnanimity and Restraint
Book I of Cicero’s On Duties, influential in Western education for a millennium or more, provides the most satisfying account, at once descriptive and normative, of the self-understanding and the moral and intellectual virtues of the statesman-thinker as the Great Tradition conceived him. Cicero imagined a virtuous statesman “who anticipated future events by reflection,” thus embodying the foresight at the heart of the Latin concept of prudentia. “A spirit great and lofty,” as Cicero puts it in a strikingly high-minded formulation, respects the inheritance of the past, cultivates the city in which he finds himself, and prudently anticipates the challenges and dangers that are likely to arise in the future. Such a statesman attempts to avoid rash and unnecessary military conflicts but will fight to the death if “slavery and disgrace” are at stake. Cicero’s model of the great-souled spirit meets Christianity halfway (avant la lettre, to be sure), spiritualizing magnanimity and emphasizing humility and restraint as much as or more than self-assertion or precipitous adventures. But the noble statesman will never accommodate himself to peace at any price or the indignity of true tyranny or civic slavery.
The Statesman as Mediator: The Case of Solon
The true, noble statesman according to Cicero, follows Plato in seeing the governing of the commonwealth as guardianship: he is in some deep spiritual sense “oblivious to [his] own advantage,” at least in any vulgar sense of the term. Above all, he hates civic discord and dissension and aims to be just to the legitimate claims of the rich and the poor, the few and the many. Sedition and discord, culminating in civil war, are the great evils to be avoided. Like Solon’s statesmanship described and lauded by Aristotle in The Constitution of Athens, he neither keeps the many in chains nor allows the “best,” the upper class, to oppress the people as a whole. As Solon put it in his own striking political poetry, recounted by Aristotle:
I gave to the mass of people such rank as befitted their need,
I took not away their honor, and I granted not their greed;
While those who were rich in power, who in wealth were glorious and great,
I bethought me that naught should befall them unworthy their splendor and state;
So I stood with my shield outstretched, and both were safe in its sight,
And I would not that either should triumph, when the triumph was not with right.
Solon is perhaps the model par excellence of the Aristotelian and Ciceronian statesman as a just and honorable mediator between the enduring political distinctions. He was famously of middle-class background himself, a point both Aristotle and Cicero stress. Like Solon, Cicero defended the inviolability of private property against rapacious oligarchs, thieving tyrants, and men of “unbalanced soul,” to quote Solon once again. But Cicero’s was, in the end, not an “oligarchic” defense of property; he welcomed new property and social advancement on the part of “new men” such as himself, as well as industrious and law-abiding plebeians. When Churchill opposed socialism in Britain after 1945, criticizing “the gospel of envy” and ignorance of the true sources of prosperity and productivity, he did it in the name of a social vision he called “property-owning democracy.” He wanted tenants to become owners and thus true citizens with a stake in the social order. In contrast, the socialists, he believed, “want everyone to be the tenants of the State.” Once again, Churchill’s humane conservative vision was very much in the tradition of the classical statesmanship defended and embodied by Cicero and Solon.
The political philosopher Leo Strauss, who knew something about both philosophy and tyranny, profoundly admired Churchill, whom he saw as a “magnanimous statesman” defending the cause of civilization in the twentieth century against the “insane tyrant” Hitler. (Strauss is almost certainly referring to moral insanity rather than some questionable diagnostic category.) Paying tribute to Churchill before his students in a class on political philosophy upon hearing of his death on January 25, 1965, Strauss suggested that those who study politics have no higher task, “no higher duty,” “than to remind ourselves and our students of political greatness, human greatness, of the peaks of human excellence,” in contrast to even “brilliant” mediocrity. To study politics accurately, realistically, scientifically is to appreciate how things come to sight to thoughtful and morally serious human beings and citizens. And Strauss no doubt would appreciate the profound observation of the Russian writer and Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who, inspired by the noble, if thwarted, efforts of the great early twentieth-century Russian statesman Pyotr Stolypin to save pre-revolutionary Russia from both reactionary petrification and revolutionary nihilism and tyranny, incisively remarked in November 1916: “Nothing is more difficult than drawing a middle line for social development. The loud mouth, the big fist, the bomb, the prison bars are of no help to you, as they are to those at the two extremes. Following the middle path demands the utmost self-control, the most inflexible courage, the most precise knowledge.” Such statesmanship demands self-command in the highest sense of the term.
The moderation that Cicero, Strauss, and Solzhenitsyn invoke in their different ways has nothing to do with slow-motion accommodation to cultural rot or moral nihilism or doctrinaire egalitarianism. It is instead an enduring, if embattled, form of human excellence, worthy of our continuing admiration. It demands that all the powers of the soul, and the full range of the intellectual and moral virtues, be utilized at the service of “commanding practical reason” and of civilization itself. This model of reflective statesmanship, judiciously melding thought and action, greatness and moderation, and humble deference to the divine and moral law, rivals contemplative philosophy as an enduring peak of human excellence. To recover the lost art of statesmanship, we must free ourselves from dogmatic, cynical, and reductive categories that block our access to things as they are.
Sources and Suggested Readings
For an incisive account of (commanding) practical reason and its relationship to natural law, see Pierre Manent, Natural Law and Human Rights: Toward a Recovery of Practical Reason, translated by Ralph C. Hancock, foreword by Daniel J. Mahoney (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2020).
The roots of modern “realism” and the reduction of politics, and the whole of human life, to “power,” and power relations, can be found in such works as Machiavelli’s Prince, Hobbes’s Leviathan, and, with a characteristic Germanic extremism, in the later writings of Friedrich Nietzsche and (to a lesser extent) Max Weber. A rather domesticated version informs contemporary international relations theory.
I am indebted to Raymond Aron’s lucid recovery of civic and moral common sense in Aron, Democracy and Totalitarianism, translated by Valence Ionescu (New York: Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, 1969). The original edition was published in French in 1965. The quotes are drawn from pages 23 and 24.
My thoughts and reflections on Cicero are indebted, in particular, to the writings of Pierre Manent and Gregory Bruce Smith. Both approach him phenomenologically and see the great Roman statesman–political philosopher as a bridge between ancient and modern theory and practice. I have used Benjamin Patrick Newton’s extremely accurate and accessible translation of Cicero’s On Duties published in the Agora series of Cornell University Press in 2016. For Cicero’s critique of philosophical and political hedonism, see Book I, section 5, and Book III, sections 116–20. All remaining quotations are drawn from On Duties, Book I, sections 71–92. This section of On Duties is a veritable tractate on political nobility and magnanimous statesmanship informed by the cardinal virtues and a sense of decency, high-mindedness, and restraint.
For Mary Ann Glendon’s account of Cicero’s melding of political nobility and eros of the mind, see Glendon, The Forum and the Tower (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), especially pages 24–25.
For de Gaulle’s searching account of Napoleon’s willful separation of grandeur and moderation, see Charles de Gaulle, France and Her Army, translated by F. L. Dash (London: Hutchinson & Company, 1944), 45–60. The quotes are drawn from pages 45, 54–55, and 60.
For the broader sources of de Gaulle’s melding of grandeur and moderation, see Patrice Gueniffey, Napoleon and de Gaulle: Heroes and History, translated by Steven Rendall (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2020), 221–23.
Churchill’s magisterial reflection on the Sermon on the Mount, ethics and honor, can be found in Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, Volume 1: The Gathering Storm (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1948), 287–88.
For Aristotle’s superb account of Solon’s noble mediation between the rich and the poor, the few and the many, see Constitution of Athens, sections 5–13. I have used F. G. Kenyon’s translation published by Oxford University Press in 1920. The moving and instructive excerpt from Solon’s political poetry is drawn from section 12.
Churchill’s defense of “property-owning democracy” is best articulated in a speech of May 28, 1948, in Perth, Scotland (“Socialism Is the Philosophy of Failure”). It can be found in Winston S. Churchill, Never Give In!: Winston Churchill’s Speeches (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 372–73, edited by his grandson Winston S. Churchill.
Leo Strauss’s noble articulation of Churchill’s greatness is reproduced as an opening epigram in Harry V. Jaffa, ed., Statesmanship: Essays in Honor of Sir Winston Spencer Churchill (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 1981). Strauss’s brief but penetrating eulogy of Churchill provides a particularly insightful account of true political science.
Solzhenitsyn’s beautiful evocation of the soul of the statesman pursuing the “middle path” can be found in November 1916: The Red Wheel / Knot II, translated from the Russian by H. T. Willetts (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999), 59. Solzhenitsyn contrasts Stolypin’s tough-minded moderation with the “false liberalism” of those such as the Russian Kadets who turned a blind eye to revolutionary terrorism and to all forms of leftist extremism more broadly.
Daniel J. Mahoney holds the Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship at Assumption University. This article draws on some of the principal themes of a work in progress, The Statesman as Thinker.
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