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.