No Fooling with the Republic
The tricky line between statesmen and scholars.


The “need for public servants who can negotiate . . . moral minefields with wisdom and integrity is more urgent than ever,” says Mary Ann Glendon, author of the new book The Forum and the Tower: How Scholars and Politicians Have Imagined the World, from Plato to Eleanor Roosevelt. “It is hard to resist,” she continues, “the conclusion of the classical philosophers that no polity can afford to neglect the nurture and education of future citizens and statespersons.”

Her book serves as a walk through history, profiling those who both spoke and acted on firm convictions in civic life. Glendon, a professor of law at Harvard and former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, discusses statesmen and scholars with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.

: Citing Max Weber, you note that “the qualities that make a first-rate thinker are not the same as those required for success in statesmanship.” Isn’t that a devastating problem for politics?

MARY ANN GLENDON: Not necessarily. Some of the greatest political achievements in history — the framing of the U.S. Constitution, the Corpus Juris of Justinian, the Napoleonic Codes, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — were the products of the synergy that came from collaboration between statespersons and scholars. Nearly all the scholars and political actors profiled in my book shared the belief that society benefits if political actors keep in touch with the world of ideas and political theorists attend to what is going on in the world around them.

Plato, who tried hard to keep a foot in both worlds, had little use for politicians who never looked beyond the business at hand, or philosophers who kept their heads in the clouds. The former, he said, develop minds that are “narrow and crooked.” As for philosophers, he warned that they need to stay grounded in reality, not only for the sake of philosophy, but in the interest of self-preservation: to assure the maintenance of conditions under which intellectual life can flourish.

: What does Aristotle mean when he indicates that the most choiceworthy callings are politics and philosophy? Are they?

GLENDON: Aristotle held that politics and philosophy were the most choiceworthy vocations for certain kinds of persons — those who are capable of pursuing them, and “most ambitious with respect to virtue.” I take the more capacious view that a person can have more than one vocation, and that all honest vocations can be paths to a virtuous life. Think of parenthood, for example! The challenge is to discern one’s own path toward the perfection of one’s nature, and to follow through on that discernment. Some of the persons profiled in my book (Plato, Locke, Tocqueville, Weber) were surprisingly slow to figure out where their own talents lay.

: You write of scholarship and statesmanship as vocations. Do we view them this way today? Do we raise scholars and statesmen? How do we present such choices positively in our homes and in our public discourse?

GLENDON: When Weber gave his famous lectures on scholarship and statesmanship as vocations nearly a hundred years ago, his use of that term was already heavy with irony. Then, as now, both the academy and government were highly bureaucratized and permeated with careerism. But most people still admire and hope for dedicated public servants, and we still look up to men and women who are passionately devoted to the disinterested quest for knowledge. Are we doing enough as a society to promote the qualities we value in scholars and statespersons? No, but the ideals survive nonetheless.