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Taking Greatness Seriously

On Principle, v10n4

August 2002

by Daniel Mahoney

Taking greatness seriously is particularly difficult today. “Elitism” in all its forms is the bête noir of “advanced” intellectual circles. When academics and intellectuals do turn to the study of great men and great texts, it is too often with “subversive” intent, with the express purpose of denying their “greatness.”

But academe has its moments. Leo Strauss spoke eloquently about the contributions that a true study of politics could make in spontaneous remarks that he delivered in class at the University of Chicago on January 25, 1965. The occasion was the death of Winston Churchill. The academic study of politics, he suggested, had a highest “duty”: “to remind ourselves and our students, of political greatness, human greatness, of the peaks of human excellence.” The task of a genuine science of society is to see things as they are, “and this means above all in their greatness and misery, their excellence and their vileness, their nobility and their triumphs.” In doing so, we train ourselves and our students “never to mistake mediocrity, however brilliant, for true greatness.”

Strauss captured an essential aspect of the “scientific” study of society all but ignored by its contemporary practitioners: to understand human reality adequately, objectively, we must make the requisite effort to understand the full range of human motives and achievements. We must make every effort to describe and understand those rare peaks of political life, which put the ordinary and prosaic in their proper perspective. An appreciation of true human greatness does not make us despise the run-of-the-mill, but it does allow us to see its limits. The statesmanship of Washington, Lincoln, Churchill, or de Gaulle, for example, can never be adequately understood if they are subsumed under a general theory of leadership or are reduced to the category of “power” as some generalized motive of political life.

The Obstacles to Political Understanding


In a truly open-minded consideration, the phenomena must be allowed to reveal themselves without the distortion of historical or sociological reductionism. But the obstacles to understanding political things in their manifold “greatness and misery” are greater than we might expect. It is no easy task to become naïve again. Modern theory and practice place seemingly insuperable obstacles in the way of an authentic appreciation of political life.

Tocqueville is an extremely helpful guide on this score because he helps diagnose the maladies and prescribe certain remedies. He famously warned about the tendency of democratic intellectual life to homogenize reality, to ignore those qualitative distinctions that constitute reality. In Tocqueville’s view, the study of political greatness is a salutary antidote to this tendency, so evident in the contemporary intellectual’s scorn for “elitism.”

Tocqueville provides further insight into the neglect of human greatness in a democratic age. He suggests that democratic historians privilege great “general causes” over the influence of particular individuals in their interpretation of modern society. This emphasis, however, is not simply arbitrary—there is indeed a diminished role for human agency in democratic societies. We are all familiar with the abstractions—democratization, industrialization, urbanization, modernization, and globalization—that dominate contemporary political discourse. These abstractions refer to real phenomena that shape and limit political choice. We are not free to ignore them. Tocqueville himself did not hesitate to resort to such “general causes” when attempting to make sense of the emerging democratic order. He appreciated that “general facts explain more things in democratic centuries than in aristocratic centuries, and particular influences fewer.” But he insisted that the virtues and vices of a few still have the power to shape the destiny of peoples. Political communities are not merely subject to “inflexible providence or to a blind fatality.”

The twentieth century French political thinker Raymond Aron updated Tocqueville’s analysis in light of the intellectual dominance of Marxism, as well as various reductive currents of social science in the twentieth century. Sociological “doctrinaires” such as Marx and Comte taught much that is valuable concerning the “historical mutation”—capitalism, industrial society, modern technological science—transforming the modern world. But they mistakenly “argued as if history, in the sense of the succession of wars and empires, of victories and defeats, was over and done with.” They “underestimate[d] the durability of the traditional aspect of history—the rise and fall of empires, the rivalry between regimes, the beneficial or baleful exploits of great men.” Aron therefore called for a new way of thinking that could do justice to both “drama” and “process,” “history as usual” and “the originality of industrial society” (see Aron, The Dawn of Universal History: Selected Essays of a Witness of the Twentieth Century, [Basic Books, 2002]). The task of the modern student of politics and history is daunting, nothing less than to analyze “the dialectical interpenetration” of traditional history, with its rivalry of regimes, with the distinctive general causes that are in the process of transforming modern life and that often seem to escape human control.

The Study of Statesmanship

We have considered some of the obstacles to a recovery of a true political science as well as the new circumstances within which such a political science must operate. The study of the thought and action of outstanding statesmen is central to political science rightly understood and is a crucial means for rekindling an appreciation of human greatness amidst the leveling tendencies of a democratic age. I insist: the thought as well as the action of great statesmen. Now it is true that reading the biographies of such statesmen is popular among part of the reading public today. This habit is to be commended. But one must add two cautionary notes: most biographers at best pay lip service to the writings of great statesmen; and much historical writing is too distorted by either a narrow sense of “objectivity” or egalitarian resentment against the category of greatness to do full justice to the “greatness” of extraordinary statesmen. I believe that we finally must turn to the speeches and writings of great statesmen themselves. To be sure, the writings of such men should be approached critically, but also with a receptivity that enables us to learn from their examples and insights.

Let us turn to the two great European statesmen who navigated their countries through the storms of the Second World War. Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle not only embodied greatness but they thought rigorously about its character, its permanent preconditions, and the specific threats to it in a modern egalitarian age. In their greatness, Churchill and de Gaulle were also friends of democratic liberty. They were friends, precisely because they were willing to confront its limitations, and to do what is possible to address them within the bounds of prudence and decency. One avenue was through great rhetoric. Their sometimes grandiose rhetoric fundamentally was a reminder that humans remain “political animals” even in a democratic age. Despite their attachment to human excellence, neither Churchill nor de Gaulle ever doubted the fundamental justice of our democratic regimes.

Yet these anti-totalitarian statesmen were far from simple-minded democrats. They were too aware of other human possibilities to limit their horizons to democratic modernity. They also had a penetrating grasp of the latter’s deepest characteristics. De Gaulle believed that totalitarianism was an episode in a more fundamental “crisis of civilization” tied to the rise of mass society and the erosion of traditional moral, political, and spiritual authority. This deepest of modern statesmen meditated on all of the political consequences of the “death of god.” His most thoughtful reflection on the crisis of modern mass society and the threats to human dignity that accompany the unfolding of modernity can be found in his speech at Oxford University on November 25, 1941. I have analyzed that speech in my book, De Gaulle, Statesmanship, Grandeur, and Modern Democracy (Transaction, 2000). Here, I would like to discuss an equally remarkable text of Churchill called “Mass Effects in Modern Life.” This text was originally written in 1925 and published in Thoughts and Adventures in 1932. It is a profound meditation on the possibilities and prospects for human greatness in an egalitarian age.

“Mass Effects in Modern Life”

“Mass Effects in Modern Life” explores the relative weight of “drama” and “process” in human affairs, to employ the helpful formulation of Raymond Aron. A cursory survey of history, Churchill observes, indicates “the decisive part which accident and choice play at every moment.” Even more formative is the influence of “Master Teachers—Thinkers, Discoverers, Commanders” who have left their mark on history at every turn. But, in a manner reminiscent of both Tocqueville and Aron, Churchill asks if the destiny of mankind is not “already escaping from the control of individuals. Are not our affairs increasingly being settled by mass processes?” Does modernity entail a new situation where human agency is no longer the decisive element shaping individual or collective destinies?

In the contemporary world one observes a marked decline in personal eminence. The “Great Contemporaries” that so impressed Churchill in his book of that name (1937) were for the most part Victorian statesmen and gentlemen, figures who already seemed to belong to the very distant past. In the intellectual, cultural, and political realms, “vacant thrones” abound. Humankind advances to new heights, but individual men are in seemingly permanent eclipse.

Churchill saw “enormous processes of collectivization” at work everywhere in modern societies. In some cases these processes, such as economic mass production, contributed mightily to the progress and prosperity of society. But despite its palpable economic benefits, such collectivization left a much more questionable impact on the “character and psychology” of men and societies. Our modern societies were succeeding in providing a “measureless abundance” unthinkable to previous ages. But this came at the expense of personal initiative and civic independence.

In modern mass society, public opinion is largely prepackaged, shaped by a media that supplies the populace with “a continuous stream of standardized opinion.” Education is “at once universal and superficial,” producing “standardized citizens all engulfed with regulation opinions, prejudices and sentiments.” Modern mass society may “eventually lead to a reasonable, urbane and highly serviceable society.” But Churchill adds a cautionary note: These mass effects may well be “destructive of those conditions of personal stress and mental effort to which the masterpieces of the human mind are due.” Churchill thus suggests that democratic justice comes at the expense of human greatness, even as an aristocratic order that gave rise to Master Teachers and to genuine masterpieces of the human mind paid insufficient attention to the dignity of the common man.

Thankfully, Churchill notes, there are limits to the standardization of human beings. These limits are indicated by the “universal standardization” which was the aim of Soviet Bolshevism. The Bolsheviks attempted by “tyranny and by terror to establish the most complete form of mass life and collectivism of which history bears record.” Writing in 1925, Churchill argued that such a totalitarian enterprise was bound to fail. “Human nature is more intractable than ant-nature,” he wisely insisted.

Advanced liberal societies can take comfort that they have escaped the clutches of totalitarianism. Still, “the great emancipated nations seem to have become largely independent of famous guides and guardians.” The Hero, Commander, or Teacher, is largely a residue of “bygone rugged ages.” Technologically-driven modern warfare apparently doesn’t need them, and standardized opinion seems to make their insights obsolete. Yet there is “restlessness” about. Modern men “miss [their] giants.” Churchill cannot help wondering whether a world of mass effects is humanly satisfying. He writes:

Can modern communities do without great men? Can they dispense with hero-worship? Can they provide a larger wisdom, a nobler sentiment, a more vigorous action, by collective processes, than were ever got from the Titans? Can nations remain healthy, can all nations draw together, in a world whose brightest stars are film stars and whose gods are sitting in the gallery? Can the spirit of man emit the vital spark by machinery? Will the new problems of successive generations be solved successfully by ’the common sense of most,’ by party caucuses, by Assemblies whose babble is no longer heeded? Or will there be some big hitch in the forward march of mankind, some intolerable block in the traffic, some vain wandering into the wilderness; and will not then the need for a personal chief become the mass desire?

The conclusion to “Mass Effects on Modern Life” is equivocal. On the one hand, Churchill suggests that nature abhors a vacuum, and that the spirit of man must find higher satisfactions than those offered in a standardized world. On the other hand, he somberly warns against the cult of the leader and suggests “we must take the loss with the gain. On the uplands there are no fine peaks.” We must resign ourselves, then, for the most part to a kind of decent mediocrity. But this is not the whole story. The citizens of liberal communities can take pride in the freedom and initiative that persist in such societies.

But Churchill’s own deeds are assuredly his final word. As a citizen, Churchill willingly accepted the priority of justice to greatness. But he knew full well that our uplands must occasionally aspire to more than mediocrity and mass effects. Sometimes it is forced upon them. Without this aspiration, democracy loses its capacity to speak to or inspire the highest capacities of our nature. It may be that it takes a profound crisis—something in the order of 1861 or 1940 or even the events of September 11th—to arouse democratic individuals from their slumbers. But as long as chance reigns, the order of democratic justice will need greatness to sustain itself. Such greatness is also a salutary reminder of the full range of human possibilities. The study of the thought and action of statesmen such as Lincoln, Churchill, and de Gaulle is crucial to the civic and moral health of democratic peoples. It is also necessary for understanding the heights that politics, even democratic politics, may in principle attain.

Daniel J. Mahoney teaches at Assumption College in Worcester, MA. He has written extensively on statesmanship and political thought. His most recent book is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent from Ideology (Rowman & Littlefield, 2001).

This essay is an excerpt from a paper presented at a conference on “The Mind and Morals of the Millennial Generation,” Belmont Abbey College, October 19-20, 2001 and at Kenyon College, March 20, 2002.

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