Remembering Winston Churchill: A Possession for All Time

Justin D. Lyons

November 1, 2004

November 30, 2004: Today is Sir Winston S. Churchill’s 130th birthday. He has been gone now for thirty-nine years, yet still Churchill societies will meet, cigars will be smoked, anecdotes will be shared. Every year tourists visit the scenes of Churchill’s life. Every year conferences are held to discuss his words and deeds. The stream of new biographies flows nearly uninterrupted. But why do we continue to meditate on this man? Has not the world moved on; has not history left Churchill behind? Why is it that his leadership is thought to be still worthy of attention?

The answer lies in a continuing dedication to what one Churchill scholar has called the “scholarship of the politics of freedom.” The study of politics has largely been taken over by the methodologies of the social sciences, which aim at reducing the human things to something mathematical, determined, and predictable. This way of viewing politics is opposed to the classical understanding, which held that political leadership is characterized by prudence—that is, the ability to deliberate well about the means for achieving what is good for man. But what need is there for such leadership if history, economics, or biology determine the course of human affairs?

The idea of pre-determination is often linked to a progressive understanding of history: the notion that human existence is necessarily getting better by every measure, especially by a political measure. Ultimately, such an understanding posits a time when the story of man will end, when human existence will resolve itself into final form. This final stage of history will see the cessation of conflict, a time when the problems presented for political community by human nature will be removed—a time when statesmanship is no longer necessary. Churchill rejected this understanding of history. He found in history relevant lessons for present action precisely because the nature and experience of man remain consistent.

Churchill did not believe that history was a linear process which guaranteed the final establishment of any political principle. Churchill was a believer in democracy. He was a firm adherent of the Anglo-American political tradition. He thought it provided the healthiest way of life for individual nations, and that the extension of this tradition to the world through an effective international organization was the best way to maintain peace in a troubled world. But Churchill did not think that democracy would triumph because history demanded it. He thought it could triumph because it was the best political approach available to man, but only if democratic peoples conducted themselves in a worthy manner.

Churchill brought a coherent body of thought about the nature of man and his world to bear on the problems and essential uncertainties of human political life. In the face of rival philosophical claims and political agendas, he successfully combined a modern devotion to limited government, freedom of speech, and the division of power inherent in Anglo-American constitutionalism with the older understanding of the fundamentally fixed nature of man, the permanently recurring trials he must confront, and the need for the political formation of character. Churchill’s ability to chart and maintain a consistent course both for himself and his people under the looming threat of destruction made him a great leader. That his thought and action were directed toward and devoted to the principles of justice, freedom, and peace made him a great man. Taken together, these two forms of greatness elevate him to the highest honors of statesmanship.

The study of Churchill’s statesmanship deserves a central place in the scholarship of the politics of freedom. He believed in the metaphysical freedom of mankind, and he insisted that it should be reflected in political arrangements, that political freedom was necessary to the flourishing of the human spirit. But the conditions of freedom do not simply occur. Humanity must fight to establish them, struggle to maintain them, and sacrifice to defend them. Because these tasks have no end in this world, the lessons of Churchill’s words and deeds will remain central to the human political experience. They are, to echo the Greek historian Thucydides, “a possession for all time.” We may therefore take Churchill’s message as inspiration to undertake the tasks we have still before us: “The day may dawn when fair play, love for one’s fellow men, respect for justice and freedom will enable tormented generations to march forth serene and triumphant from the hideous epoch in which we have to dwell. Meanwhile, never flinch, never weary, never despair.”

Justin Lyons is an assistant professor of Political Science and History at Ashland University. He is an Adjunct Fellow of the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs.