Daniel J. Mahoney’s The Statesman as Thinker offers an education in how six of history’s most profound political leaders understood the tasks of political life and the lessons that we can learn from encountering these figures today. Mahoney idealizes statecraft as a union of “commanding political reason” with profound moral and intellectual depth. He traces out the synthesis of thought and deed in these lives to reopen our eyes to the possibility of political greatness tempered by virtue and moderation. He contrasts this ideal with the supposed “realism” of modern politics, which rejects statesmanship in favor of utilitarian calculation, crass demagoguery, and ideological fantasy. Despite (or perhaps because of) its emphasis on the tangible and practical side of policymaking, realism often fails to see the ways such a mindset contributes to the erosion of cultural mores. The end result of realism is often a type of political nihilism in which citizens are reduced to subjects who are taught that public life cannot aspire to any pursuit of the common good.
The Statesman as Thinker points us toward the need for both a classical political-philosophic and a theologically informed understanding of how to evaluate political action. Mahoney seeks the best in political life through this dual focus, and rightfully narrows his field of analysis to a handful of the strongest examples of leaders who exercised both prudence and principle in pursuit of such an end. In a half-dozen brief, deeply insightful portraits, Mahoney presents the life and thought of Burke, Tocqueville, Lincoln, Churchill, De Gaulle, and Havel. Although he presents these portraits chronologically, what is particularly effective about his approach is the way Mahoney brings these men into dialogue with one another and with a handful of other important writers that can guide our understanding of high politics—Aristotle, Cicero, Raymond Aron, Hannah Arendt, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn all offer important contributions to the development of the argument. Taken together, these portraits constitute an education in what we ought to hope can be restored in the highest aims of Western political life.
The book offers no systematic principle of selection, but a prudential and moral one. The book’s “emphasis is on those rare and admirable souls who embodied magnanimity tempered by moderation, who embodied the cardinal virtues in a morally serious and realistic way, and whose rare combination of thought and action partook of the philosophical.” Thus, while Mahoney notes his high admiration for both figures, he rates Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan as “inspired ‘conviction’ politicians who were dedicated to good, even noble, principles and ideas,” but not worthy of extended study in this short book’s pages. At the same time, he points us to another, arguably more vital principle of omission—Mahoney’s subjects are both great and virtuous men. Thus, Napoleon’s towering genius does not overshadow his wickedness: “Bonaparte revealed the false allure of greatness shorn of the cardinal virtues.” True political excellence requires moral rectitude, and Mahoney’s assessments never lose sight of this.
Throughout the book, Mahoney defends not just a vital conception of human beings as dignified, rational, and moral—an anthropology that makes principled politics possible—but also the honor of his thinker-statesmen who almost universally have found themselves the target of unjust criticisms in modern academic and public life.
Anyone who would revive the serious study of statecraft and its practitioners must do so in defiance of scholarly fashion. Over the twentieth century, the professions of history and social science—as Tocqueville suggested would happen—looked askance at the very concept of greatness as a cause of events in our world. They looked instead to social and economic forces as the decisive shapers of circumstance in our world, viewing humanity as increasingly subject to accident and force, not meaningfully capable of agency. These portraits offer striking reminders of the degree to which his thinker-statesmen often stood alone, repeatedly leading their people to see new political possibilities—and especially unrecognized moral duties—in the face of great hazards.
Mahoney continually contrasts this high conception of statecraft with the moral limitations of “realism” and many other contemporary approaches to grappling with politics. He reminds readers that far from merely describing a putatively deeper set of material causes, modern theorists consistently employ “a hidden or unacknowledged ‘metaphysic’ that dogmatically reduces the philosophy, ideas, and justifications at the heart of real politics,” and instead points to an “underlying will to power that alone is said to really move the souls of men.”
The problem with modern “isms” is that in constraining what really matters about human life to one or two dimensions they ignore the fullness of dignified human experience. This leads to ignorance and ideological blindness. By contrast, the Western political tradition offers certain advantages:
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. . . . 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.
The profiles themselves repeatedly demonstrate the blind spots of reductive analysis, and in so doing rebut the casual criticisms of modern scholars against these figures. Mahoney provides a strong case that egalitarian thinking leads people to simply reject the possibility of political greatness—and he shows that many pieces of scholarship focusing on these figures casually employ a kind of demonization by category (racist, sexist, imperialist, etc.) rather than seriously assessing the all too human lives that nonetheless rose to such excellence.
Along the way, Mahoney delivers consistently sharp observations, interpretive wisdom, and moral clarity. I want to single out one such point, perhaps the most instructive for those who would look to the ancient world for wisdom. In the second chapter, Mahoney assesses the most recent and worthy book along similar lines as his—Robert Faulkner’s The Case for Greatness. In accepting Aristotle’s views of magnanimity without quite reckoning fully with the great-souled man’s faults, Faulkner misses a key weakness: “In Aristotle’s account, the great-souled man legitimately claims great honors for himself. His pride is neither sin nor arrogant usurpation.” However, there remains a great weakness:
he is not inclined toward admiration. . . . This seems both unjust and ungenerous and bereft of true self-knowledge. . . . The philanthropy of the “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 apprehension of moral limits and what one owes one’s country.
In exploring the moral lives of his statesmen, Mahoney demonstrates the degree to which Christian virtues—if not actual faith—are necessary to balance the detachment and lack of sympathy in the great-souled man’s heart.
Portraits as Critique
The book also brings significant criticisms to bear on modern political concerns. Most obviously, Mahoney regularly shows how the Left’s egalitarianism fails to grasp the highest reaches of statecraft. But he also shows how some other noble attempts to recapture older wisdom fall short.
While we can learn much from efforts like Faulkner’s or Arendt’s that seek to recapture the best of classical political philosophy, they commonly result in a cramped worldview. Of the latter, he notes that “often she spoke about public space as if it provided a stage for theatrical display more than a humanizing arena for moderating conflict and pursuing the civic common good.” He implicitly suggests that neither the contemplative nor the purely active life will suffice for striking the right balance in politics—we actually need statesmen that can harmonize informed thought and deed in the excellent use of prudence.
Here, as elsewhere, I could not help but notice Mahoney’s consistent invocation of the “political” or “civic” common good rather than the simpler invocation of the common good we hear so often today. Mahoney’s usage reflects the authentic diversities in culture, faith, and interests that compose a modern commercial republic. His use of this language also serves as a crucial reminder well known to his statesmen that the common good is not an abstraction but a work in progress, and that we achieve genuinely common goods only through the work of prudential political judgment. Gentle reminders such as these appear throughout the book for those who have eyes to see.
Similarly, Mahoney observes that in matters of foreign policy
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.
He criticizes the common American impulse to craft an overly ambitious foreign policy and calls us back to moderation and wisdom—and particularly draws attention to the ways that we are often unwilling to accept the fact that evil abides in the world. Prudence, he suggests, demands we discriminate between merely corrupt and unpleasant regimes, and those that demand statesmanlike resolve.
One might ask what statesmen are actually for upon reading this: while they clearly show their excellence in opposition to great evils, are they only really needed in times of crisis? Mahoney rather strongly implies that statesmen exist to forge the hardest compromises, deal with the most pressing political problems—and that high statecraft is almost naturally a product of the most challenging political moments.
Throughout, Mahoney’s attention to the need for incisive political judgment driven by a sense of principled moderation offers readers an education in a political sensibility mostly lost to us today. Yet the challenge here is that very few people today have enjoyed the education that allows one to see politics in this light.
Overcoming the Egalitarian Mindset
This point leads me to a critical note, albeit not so much about Mahoney’s considerable achievement but the political horizon we can imagine today. It is telling that of the book’s six portraits, only one of them is of an American—Lincoln—and none of them can truly be counted as products of egalitarian democratic regimes. A view that embraces the fullness of human dignity and potential must always hold out hope for this nobility and character. Mahoney is clear that modern democracy can produce this kind of greatness, but that our “culture of repudiation” presents tremendous barriers to recognizing it.
Tocqueville’s observations about egalitarian peoples resonate here: We don’t like to be humbled –and find it difficult to fully recognize genuine greatness. Democratic peoples want political leaders like themselves, it seems, and a vulgar “man of the people” may simply offend our sensibilities less. A deeper concern is that the truly great simply will not abase themselves before their polity or pretend to be other than they are to get a vote. One might suppose that these people go into business or less-recognizable areas of public life where they face fewer demands to conform to ideological pressure or flatten their excellence for the sake of envy. Can the truly great fulfill their political role in these conditions?
One noteworthy element that we should observe about these statesmen is that they all came to maturity within robust civic institutions, ones that allowed for the cultivation of excellence as well as hierarchy and reciprocal respect. Many such institutions still exist today, but they seem increasingly disconnected from our society at large—and thus their effects are increasingly muted by the egalitarian currents of our culture.
In his conclusion, Mahoney reminds us that it “remains our obligation to reaffirm the real in a spirit of gratitude for what has been passed on by our forebears as a precious gift,” and hopes that we “can again see the likes of the great statesmen-thinkers . . . if we dare to repudiate repudiation and once again open ourselves to human excellence in all its forms.”
This will certainly require a generational effort, and one that must take place largely in civil society and the home. Greatness of this kind comes from study and development outside the pressures of public education—and must draw upon educational resources that have largely been forgotten outside Classical and Christian schooling.
But even those educated in the deep resources of our tradition face a greater challenge unremarked in this book: how are they to draw people back into a world of deeper thought and action when our public life is increasingly corrupted by the constant, incessant, attention-sapping world of social media?
This is a challenge worthy of greatness. Mahoney’s Statesman as Thinker offers us a glimpse into the strength of soul it will require us to marshal.