Our current way of seeing and judging our political leaders is peculiar. We’re skeptical of words like “greatness” and everyone’s motives are suspect. Displays or admissions of ambition make us uncomfortable. Yet in recent years, both Barack Obama and Donald Trump developed cult-like followings—neither could do wrong from their followers’ perspective. We are cynical about the possibility of a leader’s ambition being linked to the common good. Yet we also willfully and irrationally submit to demagoguery. In his new book The Statesman as Thinker: Portraits of Greatness, Courage and Moderation, Daniel J. Mahoney seeks to restore a standard for principled statesmanship—one that could guide democratic citizens in evaluating seekers of high office.
Mahoney’s restoration of principled statesmanship proceeds through portraits of six figures who combined political authority with uncommon reflection: Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, and Václav Havel. Before taking up these figures in turn, he lays out his conception of statesmanship and explains why it has been declining for some time.
False Realism and False Idealism
Statesmen make use of an “authoritative exercise of judgment and foresight at the service of the common good.” Mahoney argues that our ability to grasp and evaluate this skill has been corrupted by two different sources. The first source is modern social science, which reduces the full range of human motives to the passions. Politics quickly becomes a mere struggle for power—an undifferentiated motive that garners unwarranted respect solely because its proponents cast themselves as “realists.” However, this realism is decidedly unrealistic because it obfuscates the fact that people have many motives. Here Mahoney has recourse to one of his intellectual guides, Raymond Aron: “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.”
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The antidote to this false realism is an “openness to the judicious mix of realism and moral aspiration that informed the classical political philosophies of Aristotle and Cicero.” A second introductory chapter allows Mahoney to engage with another contemporary scholar of statesmanship, Robert Faulker, who sought to rehabilitate “honorable ambition” in his 2007 book The Case for Greatness. Mahoney follows Faulkner in emphasizing the importance of Aristotle’s virtue of magnanimity—or greatness of soul—and then supplements this analysis with his own invocation of Cicero’s work On Duties.
Mahoney ultimately differs from Faulkner in finding Aristotelian greatness of soul an insufficient foundation for statesmanship. As Mahoney puts it, “The philanthropy of the [Aristotelian] ‘great-souled man’ is qualified by his refusal to acknowledge his debts to others, and his quest for self-sufficiency is ultimately in deep tension with a generous appreciation of moral limits and what one owes one’s country.” These shortcomings of Aristotle’s great-souled man are the reason Mahoney must turn to Cicero’s honorable statesman, who is guided by duty and the “honestum” (the fine, the noble, the honorable). Mahoney’s Cicero sought to link moral and political virtue with the highest goods for human beings. He goes so far as to suggest that “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.”
This brings me to the second source from the which a proper grasp of statesmanship is corrupted. While the reductionist impulse to root everything in a lust for power leads to a false realism, our view of statesmanship is also corrupted by an inordinate exaltation of the human will. Such exaltation recognizes neither natural nor divine limits on power, and leads us to a false idealism. If there are no ultimate limits on the reach of our will, then there’s nothing to stop leaders from embracing unrealistic or radical political projects. The limitless will is rooted in a simplified view that human nature is ripe for manipulation. An approach to political life and leadership that obscures humanity’s various motives and desires can thus lead to both cynical hopelessness and utopian triumphalism.
After his examination of how our conception of statesmanship has been corrupted, Mahoney then turns to his discussion of the six statesmen. He calls Edmund Burke—the first of the six—the “first and greatest critic of the ‘emancipation of the will’ from natural and divine superintendence.” Burke identified this as the animating principle of the French Revolution—and did so well before the Revolution would enter its Jacobin phase. Mahoney points readers to Burke’s “Letter to Charles-Jean-François Depont” from November 1789. Burke saw that emancipating the will could lead to both moral anarchy and oppressive tyranny intent on crushing independence and individual initiative. The revolutionaries’ theoretical designs tend to dismiss the significance of people’s independent and uncoerced action. The result of such over-theorized revolution is that individual initiative not approved or acknowledged by the theory must be punished or repressed. In articulating the dangers of excessively abstract theories, Mahoney suggests Burke remains very much our contemporary. Burke sought to defend “sound practice” against “pernicious theory”; such a task is highly relevant for us who inhabit a “world overrun by the ideological thinking Burke so despised.”
Here there is an interesting connection between the eighteenth-century Whig statesman and Václav Havel—the sixth and last figure Mahoney treats in this volume. Such a pairing may be surprising to many, and Mahoney doesn’t directly compare them. Havel, after all, considered himself a man of the left. Yet if one pays attention to Mahoney’s commentary on Havel’s dissident phase and his reflections once he became president of the former Czechoslovakia (and subsequently of the Czech Republic), some continuities emerge.
First, in his dissident writings, Havel argued that communism results in tyranny because its underlying theory is completely divorced from the realities of human nature. In his justly famous essay “The Power of the Powerless,” Havel argues that under communist rule, rather than theory taking its bearings from human experience and political practice, theory becomes dictatorial. As Havel puts it, “Theory itself, ritual itself, ideology itself, makes decisions that affect people, and not the other way around.”
Mahoney emphasizes the continuities between dissident Havel and statesman Havel. In his 1992 work Summer Meditations, Havel elaborates a vision of politics first mentioned in some of his earlier essays: “nonpolitical politics” or “politics as morality in practice.” He suggests politics must take its bearings from the Lebenswelt or natural world—a world where conscience is an experiential reality and where categories like courage or empathy or friendship have tangible content. Politics must take such categories as givens, and it cannot be reduced to a technology of power or to a mere economic problem. Mahoney emphasizes that Havel was attentive to the “moral foundations of a free society.”
The connection to Burke is striking indeed. In his letter to Depont, Burke states: “it is with man in the concrete, it is with common human life and human actions that you are concerned.” And Burke too urged caution if achieving political goals depends on using questionable means: “Whenever the sacrifice of any subordinate point of morality, or of honour, or of common liberal sentiment and feeling is called for, one ought to be tolerably sure that the object is worth it. Nothing is good, but in proportion and with reference.” Havel’s anti-political politics echoes such sentiments.
As the foregoing discussion might suggest, Mahoney’s book revisits and expounds statesmanship’s timeless principles. Another virtue of his book is that, though he often has recourse to the well-known and justly famous writings of his six statesmen-thinkers, he also brings lesser-known works to the fore. One of these is Havel’s strange and intriguing book To the Castle and Back. The volume consists of three threads woven together: an extended interview with a Czech journalist, detailed notes to his staff during his decade a president, and a diary from his years after departing office in 2003. It is a most unconventional and “artful philosophical memoir,” and in a remarkably short space Mahoney provides his readers with a striking picture of the diversity of tone and message in the book. This is one of the many benefits of The Statesman as Thinker. Alongside Havel’s To the Castle and Back, readers are also introduced to de Gaulle’s The Enemy’s House Divided (1924) and The Edge of the Sword (1932), Churchill’s The River War (1899), and Tocqueville’s Recollections (his memoir of the revolution of 1848).
In the course of each chapter, Mahoney also discusses some recent books on the statesmen, and each chapter concludes with suggested readings on specific themes, events, or time periods. Andrew Roberts’s biography of Churchill titled Walking with Destiny, Julien Jackson’s De Gaulle, Hugh Brogan’s Alexis de Tocqueville: A Life, and Michael Zantonvsky’s Havel: A Life are among the recent works Mahoney discusses. And classic works like Harry Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided and Isaiah Berlin’s essay from the Atlantic Monthly “Winston Churchill in 1940” are also analyzed. This gives the book a certain charm—it’s as if one is walking through a bookstore or library with a friend with a certain expertise and depth of learning and he’s handing you things of interest as you walk and talk. Occasionally one wishes that these conversational pauses were longer. The book is compact, moving quickly and gracefully. But, there are times when I wanted an author with this much learning to linger and spend more time delving deeply into these figures.
The book nonetheless provides bounteous occasions for reflection. In his portraits of human excellence, Mahoney does not set up wooden idols. These are human beings, after all, with imperfections and limitations. But such imperfections ought not prevent us from acknowledging greatness when we see it. And, in Mahoney’s view, it takes courage to see it—especially now when a democratic egalitarianism is so pervasive. Such egalitarianism, Mahoney notes in his chapter on Lincoln, “that cannot acknowledge the complexity of the human soul and the variety of human types is bound to degenerate into either egalitarian complacency or, in due time, an open war on human excellence.”
With these portraits, Mahoney aims to reinvigorate our capacity to recognize human excellence. As Czeslaw Milosz once wrote, “Behind the vanity contest, behind all the comedy (of the weak judging the weak) and sheer ordinary folly, the longing for greatness, however misguided, must be acknowledged.”