Exemplars for the West

COMMENTARY Conservatism

Exemplars for the West

Jun 22, 2022 11 min read

Former Director, Simon Center for American Studies

Richard was Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies and AWC Family Foundation Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
The 16th American president, Abraham Lincoln, sitting and leafing through documents, in Washington, D.C. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Democracy requires of a statesman both magnanimity and moderation, prudence and practice, courage and charity, wisdom and realism.

Churchill’s “courage to see” renders suspect the oft-repeated judgment that he was a “hedgehog” who got one thing right in his career, Hitler.

These statesmen profiled and analyzed by Mahoney gave loving thought to the preservation of their countries.

Are the citizens of the democracies in the modern West still capable of believing in statesmanship? That may be the largest question hovering over Daniel Mahoney’s latest book, The Statesman as Thinker.

We face several devaluations of politics that stem from experiences of failure by democratic governments. This has resulted in the anomie and indifference towards politics that many western citizens exhibit. Power seems bereft of moral meaning and is frequently used to benefit an array of special-interest groups and bureaucrats within the government. This observation, empirically accurate in many respects, also issues from certain tendencies of thought in democratic societies.

Our societies exhibit a strong inclination toward egalitarianism and an equally strong drift toward individualism. The result is a bifurcated person, unable to locate the human soul in moral greatness or virtue. Freedom is available, but it does not connect to any enduring truth in its use.

What does seem real is opinion, the amplified voice of experts, bureaucrats, corporate and social media, all of them vying for some capacity to direct democratic souls. Such power faces decreasing resistance in a society of disconnected persons who have some ties to immediate family and a few close friends. Of course, these bonds are also diminishing, and many find themselves largely alone and without great loves or friends.

To this comfortable relativism, the Left has deployed an obnoxious and ideologically formed weapon against the very notion that America and the rest of the Anglo-American constitutional inheritance is praiseworthy. To use Roger Scruton’s incredibly apt phrase, which Mahoney also cites, they have established a “culture of repudiation” aimed at virtually the entire social, religious, cultural, and political inheritance of western democracies.

How, then, do we ascend from this rather deflated condition to the great statesmen that Mahoney profiles in his worthy new volume?

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Country Before Self

Part of the learning in The Statesman as Thinker is that democracy requires of a statesman both magnanimity and moderation, prudence and practice, courage and charity, wisdom and realism. In short, the conditions of democracy—consent, equality, autonomy—do not exhaust the requirements of the human soul for freedom and virtue.

Mahoney means to expose us to “commanding practical reason” that guides and protects the regimes of ordered liberty, which find themselves frequently under threat from severe disorders of the soul. The book is “the study of genuinely reflective and even philosophically minded statesman who embodied magnanimity, greatness of soul—with an analysis and articulation of the cardinal virtues that animate this rare combination of magnanimity and moderation.” The figures profiled in this book include Cicero, Burke, Washington, Tocqueville, Lincoln, Churchill, de Gaulle, and Havel, with other “collateral” references to Solon, Pericles, Jefferson, Pyotr Stolypin, Mandela, Reagan, and Thatcher.

The book aptly begins with a comparison that illuminates the full study of statesmanship. Napoleon and George Washington both exhibited traits of excellence and ambition. Both change the course of their nations and history. Only one, though, is remembered with unqualified praise by his countrymen, excepting the unbearable stupidity of current identity politics critiques. What separates these two men is moderation and service to country.

Washington, whose desire was to establish a republican self-governing country, genuinely placed America above himself. Mahoney pulls from the 18th-century French author François-René de Chateaubriand’s Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb that Washington was a man of “antique grandeur, a Roman simplicity, and in the words of Chateaubriand a “soldier-citizen.’”

Washington “knew when to go home,” according to Mahoney’s gloss on Chateaubriand’s comments. And Chateaubriand noted that in retiring to Mount Vernon in 1797 after two terms as President, Washington “cannot have experienced the regrets” that haunted Napoleon in exile. His path to greatness was “not the pursuit of power-seeking as an end in itself.”

Napoleon showed us a different course. Chateaubriand observes that the French became “weary of his tyranny and his conquests.” In the end, Napoleon’s desire for greatness became disconnected from moderation and from a belief that his office was for the French people, not himself. In exile, Napoleon became “a solitary man, he was sufficient unto himself, misfortune did nothing but to restore him to the desert that was his life.”

Constitutional Moderation

While most of the statesmen analyzed in the book fall broadly in the modern period, Mahoney looks to Cicero’s words and deeds for a definitive account of the deeply learned and virtuous man of action. Cicero’s example does not tempt us to return to classical politics, but it does provide us with “an ample and accurate account of the motives at the heart of true statesmanship.” Cicero gives us “a judicious mix of realism and moral aspiration” that informs the best of political thought and of statesmanship. That is, “Cicero saw in statesmanship informed by political philosophy the highest practical human way of life.”

This Ciceronian statesman requires a willingness to fight for one’s country and to defeat its enemy, a theme that stands tall in the political thinkers profiled in this book. But this martial spirit is not a bloodthirsty one; it does not seek nations to crush to glorify one’s own country. Equally abhorred is pacifism, which finds support in ways that cloak its nihilism and cowardice.

Abraham Lincoln exemplified this spirit with his willingness to confront the slave power’s need to press every advantage to make the country their own. Mahoney fittingly notes that Lincoln roared to life in the aftermath of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. His Peoria Address in 1854 contains Lincoln’s mature moral and constitutional judgments concerning slavery that would be developed throughout his career.

His command of moderation in the service of preventing the American constitutional order from falling prey to popular rule divorced from natural justice can be judged between the extremes of the abolitionists who deplored the Constitution and the slaveowners who sought power without natural right. There was, Lincoln argued, no moral right to own human beings. But Lincoln exemplifies a theme of this volume in his unwillingness to subdue the Constitution in the pursuit of emancipation. Lincoln the emancipator would also prove the healer, or at least a leader trying to come to terms with the loss and suffering of the war.

Mahoney notes that Lincoln upheld the self-evident truths of the Declaration not for self-interest or self-preservation in a Lockean sense but for duties and sacrifice. Freedom could not be divorced from our need to uphold the liberty and nobility of other citizens. In this, Lincoln departs from Thomas Jefferson who knew that slavery was wrong but would finally do very little to end it. Jefferson was for liberty devoted to self, Mahoney judges. Lincoln also attempted in his grand Second Inaugural Address to bind the nation’s wounds, attempt forgiveness, and set the course for a “new birth of freedom” in America. This statesman was preparing the country for the next stage of reform in the service of its constitutional truth, which he made evident in a speech on new educational and voting efforts in Louisiana four days before he was killed.

Wartime Courage

Mahoney argues that modern Ciceronians Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill confronted populaces legitimately worried about another total war, but an inclination to pacifism also found support in “democratic ideology at the service of enlightenment, progress, and cosmopolitanism.” These Ciceronian statesmen had to warn “against pacifist illusions … reminding warrior republics of the ultimate superiority of … military courage.”

Churchill’s rhetoric infused the British people with the courage and belief that they could endure the German war machine and in time defeat it. However, Churchill’s voice in the 1930s sounded in the wilderness of British politics. His counsel to prepare for war and, in particular, to build aircraft, went unheeded. Churchill understood like no other the ideological threats to Britain’s peace.

Indeed, Churchill’s “courage to see” renders suspect the oft-repeated judgment that he was a “hedgehog” who got one thing right in his career, Hitler. Churchill’s courage and wisdom were on dramatic display in the House of Commons on October 5, 1938, when he responded to the Munich Pact. There “can never be friendship between the British democracy and the Nazi power … which vaunts the spirit of aggression and conquest … and uses, as we have seen, with pitiless brutality the threat of murderous force.” Britain needed “a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigor,” in order to “take [her] stand for freedom as in the olden time.”

Mahoney’s judgment is that “only de Gaulle shared [with Churchill] this admirable lucidity and the determination to resist the inhuman totalitarian temptation on the intellectual, military, political, and spiritual fronts.” De Gaulle had implored France in the 1930s to prepare itself with greater mechanized mobility for the next war, but his counsel went unheeded. French leaders instead built the Maginot Line to withstand a German onslaught and so prepared themselves for one of the worst military defeats in continental history.

Mahoney reports that De Gaulle saw in this choice not only unimaginative thinking, but no small amount of moral weakness. Were French commanders and politicians truly up to defending their country, or had other explanations prevented sober thinking? In his War Memoirs, de Gaulle gives an unyielding negative verdict on these efforts. “Step by step,” de Gaulle wrote in 1938, his country chose “humiliation and retreat so it had become a second nature.”

De Gaulle’s hour came into view on June 18, 1940, when he addressed “free France” from London. In that radio address, de Gaulle spoke to the French people of nobility, honor, and continued resistance. Nothing was over, and France in time and with its allies could be restored.

The Virtue of Prudence

Edmund Burke, the great 18th-century defender of the English constitution, also had to rouse his fellow countrymen against the French Revolution. We might know Burke best, Mahoney argues, through his total dedication to defeating what he called the “armed doctrine” of the French Revolution, which had elevated politics to an ideological principle of egalitarianism and erasure of French civilization, accompanied by total state power to effectuate it. Burke clearly knew that this was not politics as usual, and that the revolutionaries were attempting to create an atheist state that demolished the inheritance of France, including its murdered monarchy, and to put in its place man and the state.

Many have struggled to understand exactly what Burke’s principles were. There was the man who loathed the French Revolution, wanted its leaders killed, and steadfastly defended the English Constitution. Or there was the Burke who defended granting liberties and rights to the Irish, approved of the American colonists’ petitions to avoid direct internal rule, and supported their eventual separation and liberty.

Burke also sought the impeachment of Warren Hastings for his rapacious and brutal treatment of the Indians while he was head of the East India Company. He wrote favorably of free markets with certain exceptions. And he defended the noble heritage of Christianity for moral thought and action. In short, who was Burke: reactionary traditionalist or liberal reformer?

Mahoney appeals to Churchill’s insightful essay “Consistency in Politics” to best understand Burke. Churchill noted Burke’s apparent contradictions but reconciled them around a prudence that resisted state power overwhelming sound practice and experience that had redounded to a tolerable liberal order. Burke’s prudence and judgment were offered in support of liberal civilization and against those whose actions would undo it. Hastings’ brutal treatment of the Indians, which Burke opposed wholeheartedly, also featured the statesman criticizing “geographical morality.” Burke said, “the laws of morality are the same everywhere; and actions that are stamped with the character of peculation, extortion, oppression, and barbarity in England, so in Asia, and the world over.”

Burke sought a regulated liberty under law and the accompanying institutions, traditions, and draperies of society that protected and enobled man’s existence. Part of Burke’s horror at the French Revolution is how quickly ideological terms stripped bare human existence, licensing men to become rapacious haters and murderers. A thin veneer separates us from barbarism. Burke meant to uphold the veneer of tradition because it was good. His counsel and writings on the myriad problems and controversies in his day remain strangely, perhaps, applicable in our day as we confront new armed doctrines and the ongoing degradation of our tolerable liberal order.

A Critical Friend of Democracy

Mahoney features Tocqueville’s command of political reason and liberty in the wake of the socialist Revolution of 1848. As Tocqueville describes in Recollections, his account of this Revolution that overthrew the government of King Louis-Philippe, he finds unjustified enthusiasm among many in the prospects of an inevitable liberation. Tocqueville aimed at “a moderate, regulated liberty disciplined by faith, mores, and laws.” This was his “sacred project,” and the Revolution only made this project harder to achieve.

Tocqueville, Mahoney records, had predicted the outbreak of political passion and faux liberation about a month before it occurred in a speech in Parliament, where he was a member. The constitutional monarchy was decent, but it ignored real politics, it was too bourgeois, and lacked elevation to aristocratic virtue and an opening to the needs of many people below the middle class. This was a “government without virtue and greatness.”

Mahoney reminds us that while Tocqueville found superior justice and equality in democratic society, it was not without peril. Tocqueville wrote as a critical friend of democracy, which could not afford to ignore the greatness of soul of aristocratic virtue, if only to give democratic citizens a space to stand and view themselves and their society in the full light of virtue and liberty.

Tocqueville as statesman thus criticized severely not only the revolutionary spirit of 1848, but also the socialist ideology that drove many to march for it. This was a degrading ideology that reduced us to materialism and fed its adherents with both envy and hatred for the full inheritance of France. It sought the theatrical repeat of the French Revolution and was doomed to failure.

Tocqueville did not seek in his writings or political actions to repeat the older ways of France, but he sought a “liberty under God and the laws.” His firm example and philosophical counsel on why democracy needs elevation of soul and virtue and a dedicated adherence to constitutional liberty certainly make him a touchstone in the battle to preserve civilization.

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In Defense of Freedom

The book ends with Czechoslovakian anti-communist dissident Vaclav Havel who wrote eloquently in the defense of the human spirit’s need for freedom. Mahoney judges that “Havel is the closest thing to a philosopher-king the late modern world has experienced even if Havel had little power as Czech president.” Havel’s great essay “The Power of the Powerless” explores the nonviolent hold that communist regimes have on people’s souls. However, as Havel underscores, its hold was skin deep. The choice “to live in truth” could break the “automatism” of the communist lie.

Much the same must be done to break the lies and soft despotism that flow around us. Havel’s “Genuine politics” was devoted to “a higher responsibility—only because it has a metaphysical grounding; that is, it grows out of a conscious or subconscious certainty that death ends nothing, because everything is forever being recorded and evaluated somewhere else, somewhere “above us.’”

This transcendent mentality and the awareness it fosters can lead us out of the blindness of democratic conditions. These conditions make us comfortable with mediocrity and with being led by the experts of democratic society. We slip almost unknowingly into their grip, their mediocre educations, and stultifying regimes of conformity. Before you know it, you too, are betraying the interior of reality, no longer calling things by their proper names. In this, we forget that the human soul participates in an unchanging reality that lifts it above whatever the opinions of the day are. Wisdom loves all her children that still seek her.

These statesmen profiled and analyzed by Mahoney gave loving thought to the preservation of their countries and did so in the full manner of their civilizational inheritance. We struggle to speak as they did and to understand them in their own right. But we must try to speak as they did and live in the knowledge and hope that individual men and women of stouthearted and elevated souls can turn the tide of our American decline.

This piece originally appeared in Law & Liberty

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