Are There Any Living American Statesmen?
A new collection edited and introduced by John Burtka seeks to revive the neglected roots of high-minded and successful national leaders.
Gateway to Statesmanship: Selections From Xenophon to Churchill, Edited and with an introduction by John A. Burtka IV, Gateway Editions, 344 pages
In 2022, Henry Kissinger published his final book, Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy. In it, Kissinger profiled six outstanding leaders, ranging from the first post-war German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer to the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whom he had known and admired. Kissinger’s aim was to recount their skill and dexterity as statesmen, both at home and abroad, as representative men and women worthy of emulation. Yet in his conclusion, Kissinger confessed to some anxiety about the future of the West. “The West’s secondary schools and universities,” he wrote, “remain very good at educating activists and technicians; they have wandered from their mission of forming citizens—among them, potential statesmen.”
John A. Burtka IV, a former Executive Director of The American Conservative, does not mention Kissinger in his new book, Statesmanship, but it seems unlikely that he would quarrel with his somber verdict. Burtka is the president of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, an organization founded in 1953 that is dedicated to promoting conservative thought and whose first president was William F. Buckley, Jr. Whether many of the authors that Burtka excerpts in his comprehensive volume should be considered conservative is dubious. But Burtka has not set out to produce an ideological tract; rather, he offers a grand tour of thinkers ranging from Aristotle to al-Farabi, from Aquinas to Winston Churchill. The result is a highly stimulating book.
In his introduction, Burtka observes that something of a crisis of faith about elites has developed in Western societies. He notes that this phenomenon is not unprecedented and that “most individuals in leadership positions in most countries for most of the time have been quite mediocre or even terrible.” Rather than submit passively, however, to this melancholy state of affairs, Burtka suggests that a literary tradition designed to cultivate new leaders, called “mirrors-for-princes,” is ripe for rehabilitation. Burtka points to the texts written by Xenophon, Cicero, Han Fei, Machiavelli, and Erasmus, among others, as guides for the perplexed.
These intellectual worthies weren’t engaged in esoteric writings, but sought to influence leading figures such as Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar. Burtka quite rightly complains that this tradition has fallen into abeyance as the contemporary educational system privileges, to purloin the newly fashionable term, secondary literature over primary sources and a fortiori the social sciences over moral philosophy and theology. The mental impoverishment about which Kissinger complained can be traced directly to this development. Today’s academic epigones, in other words, do not want the source to be with you.
Burtka does. He divides the mirror-for-princes tradition into four periods—ancient, medieval, renaissance, and modern. He sees three texts as of fundamental importance from the ancient world: Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and Cicero’s On Moral Duties. According to Burtka, Xenophon does not romanticize Cyrus: “His portrait of Cyrus is strikingly honest about what it takes to lead and what tactics can be deployed by leaders to win men and women to themselves.” Burtka is similarly charitable in his account of Aristotle’s ideal leader, arguing that the true statesman is not a study in arrogance but understands how to reconcile the demands of magnanimity and honor. “When the statesman is acting on behalf of the public or the national interest,” he writes, “the Churchillian qualities described by Aristotle can serve to command respect and inspire others toward greatness.”
All this is a warm-up for Cicero’s On Moral Duties. “Looking beyond his impending demise,” Burtka explains, “Cicero wrote the book to his son, staking his hopes on future generations that might heed his advice on manners and morals.”
The high-water mark for the “mirrors-to-princes” tradition that Burtka so fervently extols arrived with the Renaissance, when thinkers such as Machiavelli and Erasmus propounded new doctrines for statesmen to follow. Did Machiavelli go astray in lowering the sights of man, as the famous Straussian phrase had it? Or was he a prudent realist who simply acknowledged new modes and orders? Burtka usefully contrasts the Florentine diplomat and philosopher with the humanist Erasmus. Burtka’s Machiavelli is relentlessly practical, disdainful of philosophers who lack the ability to deal with the quotidian realities of establishing and maintaining political rule. For Machiavelli, character matters less than cunning. Erasmus took a different view. He lauded Cicero in his book The Education of a Christian Prince, emphasizing the importance of such precepts as duty, discipline and order. He pointed to the tuition that Emperor Charles V received as a prince from the future Pope Adrian VI as emblematic of the humanistic principles that it was imperative to transmit.
Burtka fast-forwards to modernity, noting that, while the popularity of the mirrors-for-princes tradition may have declined as democracies supplanted monarchies, it’s useful to turn to several modern texts that offer wise counsel for aspiring statesmen, including George Washington’s “Farewell Address,” Theodore Roosevelt’s “Citizenship in a Republic,” Winston Churchill’s “Consistency in Politics,” and Charles de Gaulle’s Edge of the Sword.
According to Burtka, Washington struck the right balance between self-assertion and hubris. He warned against entangling alliances and called for “liberal intercourse with all Nations.” His moral probity and accomplishments, Burtka avers, “place him among a handful of statesmen at the pinnacle of political leadership in the. West, and his ‘Farewell Address’ deserves to be included in the pantheon of the mirrors-for-princes tradition.”
By the twentieth century, the moral virtues that Washington exemplified were eclipsed by less self-effacing qualities—charisma, personality, will. Burtka suggests that Roosevelt, Churchill, and de Gaulle, who embodied both reform-minded and conservative tendencies, produced writings on statesmanship that carry a “personalized tone and individuality characteristic of their age, even if their observations are rooted in permanent realities.” All shared the belief that the great statesman could leave a permanent impression upon history rather than merely serving as the playthings of broader historical forces.
What explains the contemporary neglect of, if not hostility toward, the study of statesmanship? One reason is the precipitous decline of diplomatic history and an overemphasis on materialism as the moving force in history. Another is the urge to cut down the great and mighty to size, a phenomenon that was bolstered by Lytton Strachey’s mischievous study Eminent Victorians, which almost overnight transformed figures of pious veneration into hypocritical objects of raillery. Published in 1918, the final year of the Great War, it set the stage for successive waves of revisionist history written from what Strachey had called “a slightly cynical standpoint.”
In depicting various British grandees as humbugs and frauds, he helped to undermine the unquestioning faith in the nobility that had prevailed during the nineteenth century and suffered a battering during World War I. Gone was the complacent self-assurance expressed by great Victorians such as Lord Macaulay during a speech at Glasgow College in April 1847: “Ever since I began to make observations on the state of my country, I have been seeing nothing but growth, and hearing of nothing but decay.”
Still, Macaulay’s remark provides a useful reminder that too much gloom about a nation’s prospects can devolve into a stale exercise in alarmism. Yet at a moment when American elites are increasingly coming into bad odor, Burtka’s call for a return to time-tested principles of leadership merits a wide readership. His collation of great texts from the past offers aspiring statesmen, or at least those who do not shy from, let alone revile, the term, a worthy guide for the present.