Professor Daniel J. Mahoney joins Brian Anderson to discuss history’s great statesmen, the classical and Christian underpinnings of their virtues, and attempts to write certain figures out of history. His new book, The Statesman as Thinker: Portraits of Greatness, Courage, and Moderation, is out now.
Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks Podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the Editor of City Journal. Joining me on today's show is Daniel J. Mahoney. He's an old friend, an Emeritus Professor at Assumption College and a new senior fellow at the Claremont Institute. He's the author of many important books, including The Other Solzhenitsyn and The Idol of Our Age, and he has a brand new book out, May 24th, entitled The Statesman as Thinker: Portraits of Greatness, Courage and Moderation.
Dan, thanks for very much for coming on 10 Blocks, and this, I should say, is being recorded in our brand new podcast studio. So your book, it's really a terrific read. It opens with the Roman politician and philosopher, Cicero, who you argue, provides in both his life and writings, a model of statesmanship that exemplifies a greatness of soul. The ideal of magnanimity. Why did you focus on Cicero and what is meant by magnanimity?
Daniel J. Mahoney: Perhaps I'll start with the... By the way, Brian, I'm very happy to be here, and we are indeed very old friends. Magnanimity is the Latinate version of megalopsychia, which is the Greek phrase for greatness of soul. It's a phrase used several times by Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics, and he defines greatness of soul as the crown of the virtues.
Aristotle is famous for delineating, what the tradition calls, the Cardinal virtues. Courage, moderation, prudence, justice, and magnanimity in a way is the strangest of the Cardinal virtues, because it is undoubtedly a virtue, a greatness of a peak of the soul. Somebody who is worthy of honor because they embody the fullness of the moral virtues, and also the intellectual virtue or part intellectual virtue, which is prudence. But the magnanimous man is described by Aristotle as very austere, even hardy, distant, hard to really picture him as a practical political man, since politics depends, to some extent, on loyalty, consent and that kind of thing.
But Cicero was not only a great philosopher, a student of Plato and Aristotle, who brought Greek wisdom to a Roman context, but he also was somebody who was a practicing statesman, that the last, and you might say, terminal period of the Roman Republic, he tried to save the Republic. He saw and responded vigorously to the specter of Caesar's despotism, of a new kind of despotism that would eventually bury the Republic.
Cicero, I think, perfectly embodied the two things that come together in the title of my book. He was a statesman of the first order, imbued with a deep sense of the public good, the civic good, the common good, but he was also a thinker of the first rank, and not simply about practical matters. Matters of practical import, concerning the city or the Republic, but also about fundamental question about the good and justice, law, the Gods or God, et cetera. I think more than his Greek predecessors, Cicero managed to combine greatness of soul with a fundamental moderation. A moderation that avoided arrogance. You might say that corrected the hauteur, the extreme aloofness of Aristotle's magnanimous men.
So I think anyone in the Western tradition who wants to think about political greatness in a way, the Ciceronian model stands out for that precise and, really, almost perfect melding of magnanimity and moderation. He was not a Saint, but he was a man of exemplary practical virtue and wisdom.
Brian Anderson: And what works would you say should be read by our listeners if they want to?
Daniel J. Mahoney: Well, I mean, Cicero wrote a lot of books. He wrote imitations. I mean, not really imitations, but he wrote books that were inspired by Plato's Republic and Laws. They're both incomplete and they're dialogues, so dialogues are a bit harder to navigate and make sense of. But he's also the author of a great work of moral and political philosophy called On Duties.
That, I think was, until really, the late 19th century, early 20th century, that was the most esteemed book of moral philosophy of the west. Cicero took aim at the Epicureans, who, in however high minded way reduced everything the highest good to pleasure. Cicero said, "If pleasure is the highest good, why wouldn't the tyrant in some way be pursuing his good, understood as a perverse form of pleasure?"
He also took aim at the stoics who we thought went to the other extreme. Apathetic. It doesn't matter if you're in pain. It doesn't matter if the city is dominated by a tyrant, one can find inner peace of soul. So Cicero was public spirited. He was contemplative, and that mixture of, you might say, a public spirited treatment and advocacy of moral intellectual virtue is perfectly and quite accessibly expressed in this book called On Duty. So I, for anyone who... And there's a wonderful translation that's accurate and readable available in the Agora series from Cornell University Press so that's where I always send everyone. Here's a book where you can-
Brian Anderson: On duties, yes.
Daniel J. Mahoney: On duties. Yeah.
Brian Anderson: A running theme in this new book, The Statesman as Thinker, and it shows up strikingly, I think, in your chapter on Charles de Gaulle, is the tension between classical or pagan virtue and Christian humility. So can one, as a statesman, especially in a time of war or crisis, be committed to both mercy in the Christian sense, Christian ethics broadly, and serve as a statesman?
Daniel J. Mahoney: That's the $64,000 question Brian.
Brian Anderson: Right.
Daniel J. Mahoney: I mean, I think for all students of politics of human life, the human soul, that question of how to conjugate, you might say, the proud defense of civilization and liberty with a sense of humble rectitude, mercy, concern for the weak and the vanquished. I mean, in a way, that question preoccupied the best of the pagan authors like Cicero, and it certainly has been a dominant concern and motif in Christian and democratic ages.
St. Thomas Aquinas, who had something interesting to say about almost anything, once wrote that magnanimity and humility only appear to be in contradiction. And I think he meant by that is, it's necessary for any human being with self knowledge, to recognize that their gifts and talents come from... They're gifts. Socrates didn't invent his own mind, even if he nourished it. A great statesman doesn't arise out of the blue. He's the product of a tradition. He's a product of inherited wisdom, et cetera. So a certain amount of moderation, restraint, gratitude is necessary for all serious human beings. People who know that so much of value in life is given.
On the other hand, pride and confidence in one's gifts, pride in one's country, pride in one's liberty, I think Thomas is suggesting, those are not bad things at all. They're noble things, perfectly compatible with virtue, if they're accompanied by a sense of moderation or self limitation. De Gaulle, in his great book The Edge of the Sword, spoke about the man of character, which was his particular locution for this combination of magnaminity and moderation. He said, "He's a good prince, and when he acts, justice appears."
So he doesn't act in contradistinction to justice. He doesn't act in contradistinction to the best interests of his country. He's not dominated by will to power. I think Churchill also embodied that mixture of magnanimity and mercy, but I'll say this about Churchill and de Gaulle. Faced by totalitarian ideologies like communism and Nazi-ism, they very much defended what they called Christian ethics.
A great speech on the Munich pact, October 5th 1938, Churchill said, "What is Nazi-ism?" He said, "It's a complete repudiation of Christian ethics." The last prime minister of a free France, Paul Reynaud, spoke to the French nation a day or two before the Armistice, and he said, "What the Nazis represent is the middle ages without mercy." So somehow, the best men in our tradition, managed to bring together the proud spirit of antiquity, with something of a Christian tinged emphasis on moderation and mercy.
Brian Anderson: You've written a detailed and rich chapter in this book on one of my intellectual heroes, the 18th century, Anglo-Irish statesman Edmond Burke. Burke's eloquent rhetoric, both as a politician and as a writer, was put to use in a series of great causes from defending the American colonists to advancing the rights of parliamentary governance. But in his most famous battle, Burke sought to defend practical reason or prudence against the rising force of ideological politics, as represented at the time by the French Revolution and its Jacobin fanaticism. So what did Burke see in the French Revolution, in your view, that so alarmed him and what does this perception of his back then offer us today?
Daniel J. Mahoney: Yeah, let me just say, that's a very nice summary of Burke's situation and his judgment and accomplishment. Samuel Johnson once said about Burke, "If you were under a shed waiting for a carriage to pick you up, and conversed with him about the weather for 30 seconds, you would conclude this was a great man."
Brian Anderson: He had that effect on people.
Daniel J. Mahoney: He had that effect on people. Burke saw, in the French Revolution, something radically new. He called it an armed doctrine. He said that the atheist of old were a timid lot, like the Epicureans in Rome. They wanted to tend their private gardens. He saw Jacobinism as a form of political atheism, warring on Christianity, warring on the Western inheritance, warring on political liberty, warring on all notion of restraint and self-limitation. So, it came as a shock to many of his contemporaries. Somebody like Fox, the great Whig parliamentarian, Tom Payne in the United States, he was the first political pilgrim. He went over to Revolutionary France to express his enthusiasm for the cause, and of course, he got locked up by the Jacobins, and that's another story.
It came as a shock to these men because Burke, who certainly thought the American revolutionaries were fighting to preserve long established liberties of British origin. He was well disposed to their cause. He was half Catholic, born of a Catholic mother. He was very critical of the penal laws in Ireland and the disabilities against the Catholics. He waged a decade long campaign against the ravages of the East India company, its abuses against the native Indian population of the subcontinent of India. And yet this liberal, this Whig, saw French Revolution as a supreme act of revolutionary extremism, of revolutionary negation, and as you rightly put it, of ideological fanaticism.
And the last years of his life, from 1789 to his death in 1797, were constant struggle against the Jacobin menace. Many of his contemporaries, the great Prime Minister of England Pitt thought, "Oh, this is just France. Revolutionary France. It's the same. We fought many war with them in the past," but Burke said, "No, this is something new in the sun," and he saw it as the first modern ideology that warred with the very idea of human nature, and the very idea of a moral law that was binding and unchangeable. Really the prototype for what we would later call totalitarianism in the 20th century.
Brian Anderson: Your book has another chapter on America's greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, today's woke mobs and their academic enablers have sought to diminish Lincoln's example, or even worse, have charged him, as Ibram Kendi has, with being a racist and indifferent to the fate of Blacks. This argument focuses on the fact that Lincoln didn't take the most unequivocal, abolitionist standpoint, with regard to the moral evil of slavery as a political matter. But as you note, Lincoln's statesmanship embodied a form of what today we might call the ethics of responsibility, avoiding moral posturing. I wonder if you could talk a bit about that Lincolnian example, and what your view is on these charges that he was somehow not sufficiently anti-slavery.
Daniel J. Mahoney: Well, Brian, that's all very well said. We have a terrible difficulty recognizing the moral virtue of prudence. The God of this world below as Edmund Burke called it, when it's at work in the human and political world. As Frederick Douglas said in his Freeman's Monument, it was a great monument built to honor Lincoln, raised by former slaves, dedicated in 1876 in Washington, D.C. He said, the first thing to know about Lincoln is he loathed slavery with everything in his soul, but he was not, to use Max Weber's other great term, when it comes to political ethics, there were limits to the ethics of intention. The William Garrisons of the world who just denounced slavery and wanted to rip up the American constitution. They were filled with moral fervor. They made themselves feel good, self righteous, but they would've done nothing to limit the stranglehold the chattel slavery had on half of the United States.
So Lincoln made his moral and constitutional and philosophical opposition to slavery very apparent from the beginning. In his famous debates with Steven Douglas, he mocked Douglas for his moral indifference. "He don't care if they voted up or down slavery in the states and territories." He adamantly, vigorously opposed the expansion of slavery to new states and territories. But he also knew that the path of opposing slavery had to respect the constitution, as it was written. That the first task was to reiterate the moral abomination that was slavery. The second path was to prevent its spread. The third task was to correct the growing moral indifference towards slavery, a kind of moral relativism of that age, and then when the war offered him an opportunity, he eliminated slavery in those territories of the confederacy, under the command of the Union Army.
And interestingly enough, in the Emancipation Proclamation, he said, this was an act of military necessity, but he also added an act of judgment. And of course in his famous second inaugural address, he says, in a way, the whole bloody civil war is a just chastisement for north and south alike, for our participation in the bondage of the Black man. So his moderation, his prudence was combined with the firmest moral judgment.
There's a new book out, by the way, that's getting some attention that talks about all the Black visitors who came to the white house during The Civil War, and how almost all Black ministers, activists, abolitionists, people like Frederick Douglas said Lincoln treated them with great dignity, treated them as an equal, and as Frederick Douglas famously said, "He treated me as a friend."
He was not a man, when he said things like, "Just because you have no right to enslave a Black woman, she has the right to eat what she has earned by the sweat of the brow, doesn't mean you have to marry her." Today, we see racism at work in that locution. For Lincoln, he was dealing with a half racist population and yet trying to reinforce just how monstrous slavery was, so our inability to understand some of those qualifications in Lincoln's rhetoric, really, I think shows a tremendous lack of historical and moral imagination.
Brian Anderson: Well, Winston Churchill, who you've mentioned is another statesman giant who has become a target of our cultures haters, or repudiators, as Roger Scruton called them, who see him now as nothing more than a war monger and an imperialist. Needless to say, in this book and elsewhere, you reject that view and provide abundant examples here of the remarkable power of Churchill's language. In a way, a 20th century version of Burke to move and embolden the public against what was a truly civilizational threat. But to get to that key question, what distinguished Churchill's rhetoric, which you call noble, from that of the 20th century's demagogues, who also use the power of rhetoric to move souls, but in a destructive way, tyrants like Hitler or Mussolini?
Daniel J. Mahoney: There was never hate in Churchill's rhetoric. There is never a demagogic effort to... There was a statesman like effort to, in spirit a decent of free people, but there's never a demagogic effort to sow hatred. He always made very clear that the enemy in World War II was not the German people, but the Nazi regime. He was the first, for example, in a great speech at Zurich on September 19th 1946, to call for European Union, not in its present bureaucratic form, but a union marked by the coming together of a spiritually great France with a spiritually great Germany. That's a year and a quarter after the end of World War II, with all the passions that had unleashed. The mutual bombings and all of that, and he was... Imperialist has become an ideological phrase, meaningless that's meant to wound and cancel.
Did Churchill believe in the British Empire? Yes. But he believed, like Burke, that people had to be worthy of empire, and so oppression and exploitation were not compatible with the high demands of empire. This is what people have a hard time making sense that Burke and The River War, his book on the war against the forces of the madhi, the Islamic extremism in Sudan, Lord Kitchener's adventure in Sudan in 1898-
Brian Anderson: Churchill wrote this when he was young.
Daniel J. Mahoney: He was 25.
Brian Anderson: Right.
Daniel J. Mahoney: It's a beautiful book, recently reissued in a beautiful two volume annotated edition by the Churchill scholar, James Miller at the University of Alaska. But, when Kitchener turned a blind eye, when Sudanese and some British troops tore open, the Mahdi was an Islamic Messiah, a man who claimed to be a Messiah, who established a theocracy in Sudan. When they took out his head and bandied about and made it all the way to Egypt, Churchill was appalled. And he said, "This is not the way a free and self respecting people behave."
He was not a racist. He did not believe in the racial superiority of Whites to Black. And he even speculated that perhaps with the right administration in education, someday the Sudanese could govern themselves. The Sudanese so far have not been able to govern themselves, but that has more to do with terrible leadership, corrupt military and ideology, and of course the Arab, Sudanese animosity toward the Black Christians animus.
But Churchill was a humane man. He resigned himself to the loss of empire and even to the displacement of England as a world power by her sister, English speaking democracy, the United States. But one reason why he opposed granting independence to India as early as 1947, is that he feared it would lead to terrible and destructive sectarian violence between Hindus and Muslims and it did. Two to three million people died in 1947 and 48, but Churchill later told Nehru... Nehru was once a very important man, the first prime minister of an independent India. He said, "You've done better than I feared you would." And he thought the British Commonwealth was a great instrument for maintaining ties between newly independent states and Great Britain.
But when I think of Churchill, his magnaminity is always informed by decency and humanity. Humanitas. Nothing cruel. I mean, for him, Hitler represented cruelty, a modern ideology that rekindled the worst atavisms, and for Churchill, to come back to a phrase I used earlier, in his finest hour speech of June 18th 1940, he says... He doesn't say we're fighting for democracy. He doesn't say we're fighting for liberty. He says, "We're fighting for Christian civilization," and I think that's what he meant. He meant mercy. He meant humanity. He meant some understanding that one doesn't tyrannize and kill with impunity.
Brian Anderson: Some readers might be surprised by the inclusion of another figure, more recent, Václav Havel in your compendium of great statesmen. Why did you include Havel?
Daniel J. Mahoney: Well, I included him because I think Havel was a great man. He certainly was a statesman and a thinker. There's some figures I touch upon like Washington, certainly at the beginning of the book, where I contrast Washington's principal commitment to political liberty. His proud, but self limiting statesmanship with Napoleon's despotic soul, but Washington was not a thinker. I mean, some of his state speeches are wonderful, the farewell address, et cetera. But Havel is a man who wrote seriously about totalitarianism, about the modern predicament. He's an essayist of great power. I think many people know his extraordinary essay, "The Power of The Powerless," where he first laid out a strategy for how the weak or the powerless could overcome and undo the totalitarian lie.
Because communist regimes were what Czesław Miłosz called logocracies. It was the tyranny of cliches of bad speech and if that was broken through, like when the green grocer refuses to put up the sign, workers of the world unite, then somehow the world concede that the emperor has no clothes. And he went on, I think, to become a significant moral force in Central Europe in the 1990s, bringing the spirit of anti-totalitarian dissidents.
There's a lot of corruption in East-Central Europe. Freedom came with pornography and corruption. Roger Scruton once said, "A totalitarian mendacity collapsed and the morons took over." Havel was not a moron. He was a great sold man in many ways. He had his problems. One of his close friends said he had a zipper problem. He was a womanizer. But he was also a man of spiritual and moral integrity. Those things sometimes coexist, and I think he's a very interesting model of how a creative statesmanship might arise in the future. He was also, like many of the other figures I talk about in this book, a very learned man. He read European philosophy and literature. All of the figures in this book that I highlight were men shaped by the full breadth and depth of Western wisdom. The contemporary political house, whatever it's shaped by, it's not the full-
Brian Anderson: No, that's for sure.
Daniel J. Mahoney: ... breadth and depth of Western wisdom, as we all know.
Brian Anderson: Well, that brings me to a final question. Your book, you say, is an act of recovery. An attempt to reclaim the dignity of politics on the highest level. What exactly do you mean by that, and in our new age of intellectual fanaticisms, and also widespread cynicism about politicians, do you hold out hope for renewal of statesmanship? You implied that Havel might offer a model there, but to sum up, why do you consider your book an act of recovery? What do you think about the future of statesmanship?
Daniel J. Mahoney: I think civilizational recovery will depend on a recovery of historical memory and moral memory. We so need something like Plutarchian moral biography. There's some popular historians like Richard Brookhiser have done that very well. I think my book has a little more philosophical inspiration. But that effort to put forward real models of human greatness, not a hagiography of saints, but models of human greatness, of the proper putting together in conjugation of magnanimity, greatness and moderation, I think it's so important for revivifying the best of our tradition. The idea, that thought, can inform action as Cicero and Aristotle advocated and did, I think, needs to be recovered.
I would also say, and this is something I note in the first chapter of the book, I think we have to move away from this monomaniacal preoccupation with power. Power as the end and means of politics. Power can be an powerful means of politics, but human motives, public spiritedness, justice, but also realism, moral and political, are much richer. These motives, these ideals, these aspirations are much richer than a desire for power after power that ceaseth only in death as Thomas Hobbes put it.
Early in the book, I quote a intellectual inspiration of both of ours, Raymond Aron, the French conservative liberal thinker, was in a way, a philosophical statesman in the 20th century. Great anti-totalitarian thinker, and he says this whole Machiavellian view that we always take our bearings from the extreme situations, that we reduce everything to power, he says, it leaves out the fact that human beings are also concerned with justice, with the best regime, by how we ought to live together.
Now there are naive and excessively idealistic ways of understanding that or articulating it, but I think all the figures I highlight in this book combined moral and political realism with moral aspiration. In other words, they still understood what the pre-libertarian George Will used to call the connection between Statecraft and Soulcraft.
So if we stop thinking that politics is just a game, centered on power and power relations, and if we recover the moral virtues in a realistic way, in a historically grounded way, as a way of thinking about human and political motives, then I think we actually move closer to what Raymond Aron called true realism.
Brian Anderson: Well, that's a good note to end on Dan. The book, it's really terrific. It's a education in statesmanship. It's called The Statesman as Thinker: Portraits of Greatness, Courage and Moderation. It's out soon, May 24th is the official release date. It's published by Encounter Books, and Dan, thanks very much for joining us.
Don't forget to check out Dan Mahoney's work as well on the City Journal website, we'll link to his author page in the description. He writes for us quite frequently. You can also find City Journal on Twitter, @cityjournal and on Instagram, @cityjournal_MI. And as always, if you like what you've heard on today's podcast, please give us a nice ratings on iTunes. Dan, thanks again.
Daniel J. Mahoney: Thank you, Brian.