Gateway to Statesmanship: Selections from Xenophon to Churchill
Edited and with an Introduction by John A. Burtka IV, Foreword by Larry P. Arnn.
Regnery Gateway, 2024. 
Paperback, 300 pages, $19.99.

Reviewed by Daniel J. Mahoney.

Statesmanship is an old-fashioned category if an indispensable one. It connotes dignity, elevation, self-control, and ambition within the humanizing boundaries set by honor, self-respect, and concern for the common good. Those who conceive of politics within an exclusively modern or late-modern horizon, those who speak of power (as opposed to authority), charisma (as opposed to character), and immediate success (as opposed to enduring achievements) will be tempted to dismiss magnanimous statesmanship as an airy abstraction, a form of moral idealism that a pragmatic-minded leader or people can ill afford. This much-vaunted “realism” is, however, too clever by half. Its conception of reality leaves out palpable realities that are integral to political life itself: public spiritedness, patriotism, love of justice, disdain for tyrannical self-aggrandizement, and what the late Robert K. Faulkner called the “honorable ambition” to combine the great and the good in the life of the soul and the life of the polity. 

As Pierre Manent has written, political reality is not exhausted by coup d’états, revolutions, fratricide, civil wars, and the full array of “extreme situations” appealed to by modern realists. Modern “realism” is at once dangerously impatient and clawingly prescriptive, imploring decent men and women to jettison whole parts of reality that are essential to civilized life and politics. To be sure, the true statesman must be tough-minded, alert to what Edmund Burke suggestively called “the inventiveness of wickedness.” At the same time, the statesman refuses to succumb to the infinite moral flexibility, more beast-like than human (see Machiavelli’s simultaneous appeal to the qualities of the lion and the fox), heralded by Machiavelli in Chapter 18 of The Prince. The central difference between Aristotle and Machiavelli, between classical political science and so-called modern realism, concerns whether the effective leader must cease to be a good and virtuous human being. 

For Machiavelli, prudence is nothing more than efficacious cunning, virtù deprived of old-fashioned moral virtue. For the Aristotelian statesman, cunning is necessarily subordinated to the requirements of decency and moral prudence which are more ‘real,’ more weighty, than the Machiavellian means that also serve as the unquestioned ends of “realist” politics. Otherwise, the flexibility of the statesman readily gives way to cruelty and cunning tout court. There is nothing in the Machiavellian framework that allows one to distinguish reasonably the statesman from the tyrant, even if Machiavelli undoubtedly wanted to “economize” violence in the name of political necessity. Machiavelli loathed “pious cruelty” but provided no principled grounds for opposing the “impious cruelty,” infinitely more murderous and tyrannical than what preceded it, that would do so much to deform the twentieth century. There is a bitter price to be paid for taking one’s bearings exclusively from “the fecundity of evil” (the phrase is Pierre Manent’s) as Machiavelli so clearly did in his effort to replace “imaginary principalities” (Prince, chapter 15) with a ‘realism’ that was decisively beyond good and evil. 

These thoughts came to mind in spending time with the excellent anthology of writings on statesmanship (Gateway to Statesmanship: Selections from Xenophon to Churchill) edited and introduced by the president of ISI, John A. Burtka, and published earlier this year by Regnery Gateway. I cannot think of another volume that rivals Burtka’s in no small part because statesmanship has been largely ignored, or even dismissed out of hand, by our intellectual clerisy for a good century or more. Fine studies exist of individual statesman and statesman-thinkers, some by historians and many by political theorists—Xenophon, Cicero, Machiavelli, Thomas More, Burke, Washington, Lincoln, and Churchill come to mind—but no comparable anthology.  The language of statesmanship has largely been replaced by a discourse centered around power, leadership (charismatic or otherwise), or reckless activism that aims at comprehensive social or revolutionary transformation. Burtka’s approach, in contrast, restores moral judgment and political prudence to the study of political rule, an elevation already evident in his preference for the notion of statesmanship over the amorphous (and value-free) category of leadership. 

The originality of Burtka’s approach lies in his effort to restore an even more old-fashioned approach, that of the “mirror of princes,” as the key to taking statesmanship seriously once again. “Mirrors of princes” were written to educate new and future rulers about their moral and political responsibilities and to shape their characters in ways that encouraged virtue, wisdom, and salutary self-restraint over tyrannical self-aggrandizement. Inherent in this tradition is a self-conscious moral and civic preference for statesmanship over despotism, for public service over an ignoble preference for the ruler’s narrow self-interest, not to mention his unhinged self-will. It is a tradition in its Christian form that appeals to both classical magnanimity of an Aristotelian sort and humility before the judgment of a just and merciful God. It is tempting to dismiss this approach as “idealistic,” and merely hortatory, rather than realistic and empirically grounded. But that would be a mistake. 

As Leo Strauss explained with rare penetration in a 1942 essay entitled “What Can We Learn from Political Theory?” classical and medieval thinkers combined a preference for the rare and noble with a realistic understanding that the “best regime” was primarily an “object of wish or prayer.” Their theoretical utopianism was accompanied by a thoroughgoing realism about human nature and a recognition of the precarious character of all human achievements, including decent and lawful political arrangements. It was this morally serious realism that led their political advice to often take the form “of exhortation, of moral advice.” The “special genre of political literature” called “the mirrors of princes” encouraged “decency and humanity” in the conduct of princes rather than trusting in Machiavellian cunning (dangerous in any time or place) or that modification of Machiavellianism, “the modern utopianism of the social engineer” that risks culminating in full-scale bureaucratic despotism and ideological fanaticism. Strauss adds that “the mirrors of the princes provoked the displeasure, the disgust, the passionate reaction of Machiavelli.” Burtka knows all this as the selections from The Prince that he includes in the anthology amply testify. 

But for understandable reasons, Burtka chose to present the “mirrors for princes” as a contested tradition with Machiavelli presenting a rival account of the education of the prince centered around the audacious and ostensibly “realistic” claim that, in Burtka’s words, “there is little or no correlation between being a ‘good person’ and being a ‘good ruler.’” One can readily contrast this with Aristotle’s claim in the Politics and the Ethics that greatness and goodness only truly come together in the statesman’s exercise of high prudence, practical wisdom at the service of the common good. As Larry Arnn writes in his “Foreword” to the volume, such practical wisdom is a form of truth, the truth of action characterized by “the right thing to do in the circumstances.” Practical wisdom “points up to the ultimate forms of wisdom concerned with the eternal,” whether in the form of philosophical contemplation or the God who is the Creator and Moral Governor of the Universe. But it is integral to the lives of both thought and action. 

In the Burtka anthology, selections from Cicero, St. Thomas, Thomas More, and Erasmus ably defend the dignity of the political vocation while subtly relativizing the claim that the statesman is concerned with the highest goods per se. Cicero and Thomas More, in particular, plead for liberally educated and public-spirited men to serve the public good by taking their moral duties seriously and bringing philosophical acumen to the exercise of public affairs. They share a disdain for those who prefer private pleasures, even the pursuit of philosophical wisdom, over “the well-being of their fellow citizens.” Yet, Cicero fully appreciated the dangers inherent in public service in the decaying republic that was Rome, and Thomas More knew that the rhetoric appropriate to the rough and tumble of life at court could not be too abstract or inaccessible — “out of the road,” so to speak, of ordinary statesmen and citizens. Still, “if ill opinion cannot be quite rooted out, and you cannot cure some received vice according to your wishes, you must not, therefore, abandon the commonwealth, for the same reasons as you should not forsake the ship in a storm because you cannot command the winds.” 

Cicero and Thomas More, noble practitioners of high-minded prudence and men of undoubted moral integrity, both met the fate of martyrs, one in defense of the Republic that he loved, the other in defending the unity of Christendom against a king turned murderous and capricious tyrant. Machiavelli detested Cicero’s “moralism” and without doubt would have loathed Erasmus’s and Thomas More’s Christian humanism. He preferred Xenophon’s portrait of Cyrus the Great, whom he read as a proto-Machiavellian. Erasmus, in contrast, took the surface of The Education of Cyrus quite literally, finding in Xenophon’s account of the Persian king a portrait of admirable self-command and nobility. The reader can judge for himself or herself by reading the generous selections from Xenophon’s book in Burtka’s anthology. Two clues for the discerning reader: Xenophon was also a student and admirer of Socrates, whose soul was anything but ‘imperial’ or despotic. And at the end of his book, Xenophon stresses how quickly after his death Cyrus’s imperium disintegrated. Xenophon unequivocally states “that the Persians of today and their allies are less religious than they were of old, less dutiful to their kindred, less just and righteous towards other men, and less valiant in war.” I would suggest that the half-Median Cyrus (a people known for their addiction to luxury and moral decadence) played a crucial role in turning an austere aristocracy or oligarchy into a barely concealed oriental despotism. The thought is not original to me, but I find it compelling. 

A feast lies before the reader. One meets Han Fei, a Chinese political thinker from the third century BC who is bereft of all moral niceties and seems equally devoid of any concern for political liberty (a concern that coexisted with and informed and justified Machiavelli’s moral flexibility); Judith from the Hebrew Scriptures, who slays the military leader of the Assyrians in an act of fidelity to the Lord God and the Jewish people; the contrasting approaches of St. Augustine (who reminded rulers they were sinful men like everyone else); and that of Eusebius and Agapetus the Deacon (who wrote quasi-hagiographies of Emperors Constantine and Justinian, respectively). The Christian approach to statesmanship is by no means uniform as these selections illustrate. 

In the final section of the book, (“Modernity”), the reader has access to the thinking of a series of statesmen closer to home who eschewed theoretical and vulgar Machiavellianism and who amply embodied the path of honorable ambition. In Washington’s “Farewell Address” one reads the final testimony of a statesman who combined self-command and republican rectitude with concern for sustaining union and liberty in the new American republic. With Theodore Roosevelt (whose nobility was perhaps marred by excessive vitalism, a concern for action for action’s sake) one finds an eloquent appeal to vigorous citizenship and “great devotions” where the effort is more important in the end than success or failure. And with Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle, one sees two remarkably thoughtful statesmen at work: the first defending “Consistency in Politics” as embodied by Burke’s partisanship for liberty and authority, respectively; the second providing an “anticipatory self-portrait” of the “born protector,” or magnanimous statesman, who combines “originality in method” with a benevolent concern for the public good. Burtka’s anthology is thus a most welcome invitation to civic self-reflection. It is also a book that can help invigorate the teaching of statesmanship in an academy badly in need of moral and intellectual renewal.

Daniel J. Mahoney is Professor Emeritus at Assumption University and Senior Fellow at the Claremont Institute. He is the author, among other books, of The Statesman as Thinker: Portraits of Greatness, Courage, and Moderation (Encounter Books, 2022).

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