Politics & Policy

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.

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.

LOPEZ: 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.

LOPEZ: 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.

 

LOPEZ: You point out that “nearly everyone today engages in political activity, if only as an informed voter, and never before have so many men and women comes to regard lifelong learning as essential to a full and happy existence.” Does that make this book as relevant to the Tea Party as the next president of the United States?

GLENDON: I believe that all sorts of people are curious about how others have struggled with problems similar to their own, and interested in the extent to which they have failed or succeeded. It’s fascinating, for example, to see Cicero constantly wrestling in his private letters with the difficulty of deciding what to do when, as he put it, “apparent right clashes with apparent advantage,” and second-guessing or berating himself later on with the benefit of hindsight. In the book, I tried to bring some of the main figures in Western political thought to life — and to show how they dealt with many of the same dilemmas we face today.

For example: Is politics such a dirty business, or are conditions so unfavorable that one can’t make a difference? What kinds of compromises can one make for the sake of getting and keeping a position from which one might be able to have influence on the course of events? What kinds of compromises can one make for the sake of achieving a higher political goal? When does prudent accommodation become pandering? When does one reach the point at which one concludes, as Plato finally did, that circumstances are so unfavorable that the only reasonable course of action is to “keep quiet and offer up prayers for one’s own welfare and for that of one’s country”?

What any given reader takes away from these stories will depend very much on what he brings with him and what he’s looking for.

LOPEZ: Why do you look to Henry Kissinger to set the scene for the book?

GLENDON: An important point I wished to make in the book concerns a key difference between statespersons and scholars: The latter can deliberate as long as they wish without reaching conclusions, but the former must decide and act (often on imperfect information) and take responsibility for their decisions and actions. I found the elderly Henry Kissinger’s reflections on his experience in both the forum and the tower particularly relevant to that point. They also illustrate the tragic dimension of much political action, and the serious risks and costs that attend so many important decisions, no matter which course of action is chosen.

LOPEZ: Is there an appreciation for the role of the political actor that you hope to get across to the reader; perhaps an appreciation that we don’t always have?

GLENDON: Well, I suppose my respect for that role goes back to my childhood in Berkshire County in western Massachusetts, where the town-meeting form of government was still vibrant, where my father became the first Irish Catholic to be elected chairman of the board of selectmen in our town, and where I had the privilege as a teenager of working for Leonora Leahy, the first woman to be elected to the Pittsfield city council.

In that context, the choice between Aristotle’s and Machiavelli’s vision of politics seemed clear to me — politics is not just about the getting and keeping of power, it’s about free persons ordering their lives together. Later, I encountered the seamier side of politics in various places, but I don’t see any reason to give up on high standards for public service. On that point, I’m with John Paul II — who witnessed government at its worst under National Socialism and Communism, yet insisted that politics can be a virtuous calling — provided one is ready to wage “a full-scale battle and a determination to overcome every temptation, such as the recourse to disloyalty and falsehood; the waste of public funds for the advantage of those with special interests; and the use of ambiguous and illicit means for acquiring, maintaining and increasing power at any cost.”

LOPEZ: Are these characters all admirable on some level? Surely scholars and statesman aren’t all saints.

GLENDON: One of my aims in writing The Forum and the Tower was to fill what I perceived to be a gap in the literature — the need for a book that links some of the most influential figures in political theory to the events of their times, and that connects their theories to their personal histories. Since all of the persons I chose as protagonists are giants in Western political history, there is much to admire about all of them. And since they are all only human, they all have their flaws and failings, some more than others.

LOPEZ: What made Cicero and Edmund Burke stand out?

GLENDON: Persons who have achieved great distinction in both of the vocations that Aristotle deemed most choiceworthy are probably more rare than athletes who have played both baseball and football in the major leagues. But Cicero and Burke would hold a place of honor on any list of superstars of politics and philosophy. If Cicero had never risen to eminence as a Roman orator, senator, and consul, he would still be remembered for his contributions to the great Greco-Roman synthesis at the base of Western civilization. And if he had never written on philosophy, he would still be honored for his courageous efforts to preserve the rule of law in the last years of the Roman republic. If Burke had never written his classic Reflections on the Revolution in France, he would still be remembered for his political oratory and achievements — among them his defense of the American colonists, his efforts to end the oppression of Catholics in Ireland, and his prosecution of the governor general of the British East India Company.

LOPEZ: How can Plato help the “career-changers and late-bloomers”?

GLENDON: It should be some comfort to know that one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived took a long time to give up his conviction that he was destined for a life in politics! By his own account, Plato’s sole ambition as a young man was to follow in the footsteps of family members who were prominent in the public life of Athens. It was only after two tries ending in disappointment that he plunged into philosophical studies.

LOPEZ: Why is Plato’s The Laws so important and yet so little-known?

GLENDON: Though Plato is best known for the “ideal” city described in his Republic, it is in his last, longest, and most political dialogue, The Laws, that he sets forth his thoughts on government for a real polity. The ideas in The Laws are so fresh and stimulating — especially his attention to the dependence of law upon culture — that I’m baffled by the relative lack of attention that text receives. Perhaps it’s not philosophical enough for the philosophers and too philosophical for political scientists and lawyers!

LOPEZ: What’s wrong with Rousseau’s legacy of the “politics of compassion”?

GLENDON: In his effort to ground morality in something other than religion, Rousseau hit upon what he considered to be a natural feeling of empathy for the suffering of others that makes us unwilling to harm others, unless our own self-preservation is at stake. But compassion, unlike charity, is not a virtue acquired by self-discipline and habitual practice. It is only a feeling, and a fleeting one at that. It yields not only to self-preservation, but to self-interest. It’s too shaky to serve as the foundation for a just society.

LOPEZ: Why did you include Max Weber?

GLENDON: Weber’s famous pair of essays “Politics as a Vocation” and “Science as a Vocation” were very much in my mind when I decided to write about the relationship between political action and political theory. But I would have included Weber in any case because his own experience of being torn between two vocations is so dramatic, and so illustrative of the difficulty many people have in discerning where their talents truly lie.

LOPEZ: Why are you so fascinated by Eleanor Roosevelt? You wrote an entire book about her, and include her in this one. And why is Charles Malik important to know?

GLENDON: Instances of fruitful collaborations between scholars and statespersons fascinate me. When I was researching the history of the framing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for A World Made New, I was struck by two key elements in that process that had been overlooked or underrated by most historians and biographers: namely, the formidable political skills of Eleanor Roosevelt and the decisive intellectual influence of Charles Malik. Roosevelt had little interest in high theory, and Malik detested the world of politics, but as co-leaders of a diverse and fractious team of scholars and statespersons, they overcame enormous obstacles to produce a document that became a milestone in the long history of human rights.

LOPEZ: Was he right that politics is a world of “untruth”?

GLENDON: Certainly that is the way Malik saw it in his moments of greatest discouragement. But his own remarkable political career proved that the matter is far more complex. He gained such a reputation for independence and integrity that he was elected by secret ballot to several of the U.N.’s highest positions. Though he always longed to return to philosophy, he came in the end to agree with Plato and Cicero that capable good citizens have to get involved in politics rather than leave the public sphere to those who are evil or weak.

LOPEZ: Is there any page in your book that you would flag and highlight for every man and woman in elected office?

GLENDON: What different people will find meaningful in these stories will probably depend on where they find themselves on their own journeys through life.

LOPEZ: What do you say to your students when they ask, “When should one speak truth to power no matter what the risk, and when is it acceptable, as Burke put it, to speak the truth with measure that one may speak it longer?”

GLENDON: That is the sort of prudential judgment that, as Edmund Burke often said, depends on the circumstances. The ability to judge well of course depends on the intellectual and moral qualities that each person brings to the decision-making process. One hopes and prays, as an educator, to play some role in strengthening students’ abilities to make good judgments.

LOPEZ: If you were going to do a contemporary Forum and the Tower, who might be some of the people you profile?

GLENDON: I deliberately confined my biographical sketches to persons who have long been regarded as major figures in political history. As the essays in my book illustrate, the full significance of the life of a statesperson or philosopher tends not to emerge until some time after he or she has passed from the scene. To be sure, there are some remarkable scholars and political figures among our contemporaries and near-contemporaries whose vocational journeys may one day be fascinating and instructive to explore. But I would be hesitant to single anyone out at this point.

LOPEZ: “Just because one does not see the results of one’s best efforts in one’s own lifetime does not mean those efforts were in vain.” Is there anyone in particular you’d point that out to today?

GLENDON: That’s a lesson for all of us, perhaps especially for people who are raising children!

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