No fooling with the republic
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.”
Mary Ann Glendon is Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, and is a former United States Ambassador to the Vatican. She is most recently the author of The Forum and the Tower: How Scholars and Politicians Have Imagined the World, from Plato to Eleanor Roosevelt.