Magazine | January 25, 2016, Issue

Churchill’s Meditations

Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill and the Salvation of Free Government, by Larry P. Arnn (Thomas Nelson, 240 pp., $23.99)

Of all the impulses that may drive someone to add yet another book to the colossal literature on Winston Churchill, one that quietly throws singular light on Churchill’s sober grasp of statesmanship isn’t the spiciest. We prefer to read about the dashing young army officer who took part in the British Army’s last cavalry charge; the lone defiant voice warning his nation of Hitler’s military buildup in the 1930s; the buoyant warlord prime minister who faced down the Nazi blitzkrieg; or even the venerable lion whom the British electorate sent out to pasture in stunning ingratitude after the war but who then went on, improbably, to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. These Churchills make better copy. We prefer dash, the unexpected, a well-aimed bon mot, and a splash of occasional political recklessness in the name of principle — in short, everything we know not to expect from politicians nowadays.

But as Larry Arnn shrewdly reminds us in this new book, we blame our contemporaries unjustly for not measuring up to Churchill: Leaders of his caliber have always been rare. Yet that fact doesn’t let us off the hook. We’re duty-bound to learn as much as we can from those few men and women on the political stage who have been deemed great.

This is a timely reminder; seldom have we needed Churchillian leadership more acutely. But we need to acknowledge the roots of his success: It is not only the brave Churchill of the battlefield and bombed-out ruins of the newsreels we ought to learn from, but also the Churchill of the library, the one who could act prudently because he had read deeply and thought with a clear if crowded mind about the world, not only as we would have it be but as it is. It’s Churchill the thinker and political philosopher (and, in not a few cases, Churchill the prophet) Arnn chooses to give us here. It’s the Churchill who believed that to govern without a solid philosophy — a set of high and ineluctable principles grounded in reality as revealed by that constellation of experience we call history — is to sail a ship without a rudder. The good statesman acts, but only after meditation, and it is the substance of Churchill’s meditations that we’re here invited to enter.

A keen student of Churchill since he served as research director for Sir Martin Gilbert (Churchill’s official biographer) almost 40 years ago, Arnn sets himself the formidable task of dredging up the key themes of thought and action that run as consistently as a meandering stream through Churchill’s long and contentious career, a career that was by his 65th birthday, in 1939, judged by many to be mixed at best and at worst a failure. The author has a munificent treasure to mine: A hundred years from now our descendants may be poring over some politician’s collected Tweets, but fortunately Churchill wrote concise, sharpened sentences and nuanced, barrel-aged, mature paragraphs conveying real ideas and impressions and conclusions and not merely crude, attention-grabbing expostulations.

Arnn finds one central theme to elaborate: Churchill’s steady blue-flame conviction that a free people, educated in the arts of freedom, can and should be entrusted with their own governance, and indeed that only by such freedom can they realize their full potential as human beings worthy of that freedom. This idea may strike us as the elementary, pietistic stuff of civics class, but it isn’t. It’s the fundamental baseline for rational, lucid thinking about the life well lived.

A corollary to this conviction, though, is that such freedom, once achieved, can and will be lost should it not be vigorously re-explained and re-defended with each new set of beneficiaries; freedom is not a possession forever but a fragile fortress under relentless, if sometimes remote, attack, and it can never be taken for granted. Each new generation must make itself guardians. And what are the enemies of freedom against which we all need to arm ourselves? These Churchill spent his entire adult life exposing, as Arnn does here.

We’re taken methodically on a tour of those toxic agents that are, according to Churchill, perpetually poised to destroy freedom within the Western democracies: the destabilization of the rule of law by arbitrary fiat and legislating against the grain of human nature; the erosion of the constitutional constraints of limited government; the lazy ceding to meddling bureaucrats — who become “neither civil nor servants” — and “experts” of decisions that should be left solely to citizens and their elected representatives; and the sapping of the initiative of private enterprise, accompanied by blind acquiescence to intrusive state control to reach a dubious and self-defeating social equality. Arnn fleshes out all these enemies of liberty and human dignity in the gritty context of Churchill’s struggles over 50 years.

These are all, in the main, well-recognized political difficulties within the range of savvy political handling; not so with other difficulties plaguing modern life, which aren’t so much political as cultural, and even spiritual. These too Churchill was able to diagnose with the penetrating judgment of a historian and a man fighting in the dust of the arena. “No material progress,” Churchill wrote, “even though it takes shapes we cannot now conceive, or however it may expand the faculties of man, can bring comfort to his soul.” This arduous work individuals must do for themselves, and expecting governments made up of fallible people, with links to wisdom that are tenuous at best, to accomplish for all what only the few and disciplined can accomplish with any predictable felicity on their own is highly unrealistic; citizens suffer when their governments are “ill-directed or mis-directed by their rulers,” an outcome more than likely when people are accidentally or deliberately unschooled in the arts of freedom. This is a Churchill we don’t often hear, but his voice gets amplified in this volume.

It isn’t surprising that Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College, would also find occasion while delving into the depths of Churchill’s mind to rehearse the great man’s too-little-known ideas about the nature of education. Churchill traced many of our modern maladies to the disintegration of the ideal animating liberal education of the classical sort — the kind that discusses ends, not means — and believed that any course of instruction that seeks to do less is an exercise in evasion and does not deserve the noble label of education at all. Churchill warned of the new technocracies of mechanized men in which education would become “universal and superficial” — the first he endorsed, though he feared it could not be realized without the second. The best education, Churchill said, the kind that will have the best chance of preserving our freedoms by enlightening a citizenry to its rights and duties both, requires a “detachment from material affairs” and a concentration on high and ultimate things. In the world to come, education should become “broader and more liberal” because “all wisdom is not new wisdom”; much that we need to know has already been discovered; we have only to learn and then apply it to new circumstances. Education, in the end, ought to prompt us to answer the simple and profound questions of “Why are we here?” and “What is the purpose of life?” When one ponders these words, one begins to see further latent causes of Churchill’s greatness. He had a compass, and not for worldly things alone.

It was Churchill who reminded us that we have no choice as citizens of a republic but to be students of history, a source of knowledge deemed superfluous only in propagandized, totalitarian societies where the human spirit is stifled. “A nation that forgets its past,” he wrote, “has no future” — or the future it will have will be one over which it will exert little or no control because those arts of freedom that provide leverage for its citizens will have been forgotten. This trial, this fight for freedom, was one that Churchill chose to engage not for the sake of the “future,” but for those who will live there. And the distinction wasn’t slight to a man who believed in the sovereignty of the individual.

All the reflections brilliantly culled here from the work of an author who wrote around 15 million words — histories, articles, sketches, speeches — aim squarely to bolster Churchill’s claim that this civilization will not survive without a place for a kind of statesmanship practiced for the wider sake of human flourishing, and one that requires wisdom, which is in uncommonly short supply in any age, yet perilously so now when warring ideologies cloud the air. But we must not be ships adrift. Churchill would have us in charge, not simply the floating wreckage of other people’s decisions. “Churchill’s life may be seen,” Arnn writes astutely, “as an attempt to supply through statesmanship a vindication of human choice.” And as Arnn reminds us, the fight that Churchill joined, to preserve human freedom, is ours now, and it can be won.

Chesterton once said that people who make history don’t know any, and we can tell by the kind of history they make. Churchill, the happy warrior, was also the happy exception, and we can tell by the history he made and told — the kind only the wise can acknowledge.

– Mr. Simmons is the author of Climbing Parnassus and teaches humanities in the Westover Honors Program at Lynchburg College.

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