“It is evident,” declared Aristotle, expecting no argument, that “two ways of life are the ones intentionally chosen by those human beings who are most ambitious with a view to virtue, both in former times and the present; the two I mean are the political and the philosophic.”
The strange word here is “virtue,” which carries a lot of baggage for the modern reader. Anyone too preoccupied with virtue is, by contemporary standards, presumably guilty of something until proven otherwise, and maybe not even then.
So it bears keeping in mind that, in Aristotle’s usage, “virtue” is almost a piece of technical jargon. It refers to a form of excellence that, as you pursue it, leads toward profound happiness and a richer life – a condition of human flourishing.
Being “ambitious with respect to virtue,” then, is not as grim as it may sound. Likewise, we have to shed a little cynicism in order to understand why Aristotle would single out politics and philosophy as ideal venues for pursuing that ambition. He understood them, not as professions, let alone as rackets, but rather as activities manifesting and enhancing our nature as social and rational animals.
At the same time, politics and philosophy pull in different directions -- one toward civic engagement, the other into deep and prolonged reflection. Aristotle was all about finding a happy medium, but in the final analysis he thought that intellectual contemplation was the highest form of virtue/excellence. (This is hardly surprising. He was a philosopher, after all.)
Mary Ann Glendon’s The Forum and the Tower: How Scholars and Politicians Have Imagined the World, from Plato to Eleanor Roosevelt, published by Oxford University Press, is a meditation on this theme from Aristotle by someone who has served as both an academic and a diplomat. (Glendon, a professor at the Harvard University Law School, was a U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican during George W. Bush’s second term.)
The book consists of a series of biographical essays on figures who moved between scholarship and statecraft, or at least desired to bring them together. “History provides few examples of prominent political actors who, like Cicero or Edmund Burke, are remembered for important contributions to political thought as well as for distinguished public service,” Glendon writes. “As for political theorists who have ventured into politics, some of the most eminent – Plato, Tocqueville, and Weber, for example – were strikingly ineffective in the public arena.” She devotes a chapter to each of these figures, plus a few others, drawing as much on their memoirs and private papers as their books or speeches. In style and spirit, The Forum and the Tower is much closer to a book like Will Durant's The Story of Philosophy (1926) than to a monograph.
The author describes the essays as “loosely linked,” which seems fair a fair description. Unlike Aristotle -- who is forever generating categorical distinctions, weighing alternatives, and lining things up neatly – Glendon is not particularly driven to analysis. Her examples from history converge on a simple point: the politician and the serious thinker embody distinct capacities, seldom found together in a single person. That principle was already recognized in ancient Athens. And Max Weber had pretty much the last word on the subject in two lectures, “Science as a Vocation” (1917) and “Politics as a Vocation” (1919). Glendon's discussion of Weber, near the end of the book, epitomizes her concern with the difficulty of bridging the distance between “the forum” (where political decisions are made) and “the tower” (as in, ivory).
In particular, Weber’s thoughts on politics as an “ethics of responsibility” seems framed as a warning. The political actor “has to be able to deal with the world as it is,” she writes, “taking human frailty into account and even using it for his purposes. He must be able to bear the irrationality of the word in which evil sometimes comes from good and good sometimes comes from evil. He has to understand that the attainment of good ends may even require using morally dubious or at least dangerous means, and that if one chases after the ultimate good, then the good he seeks may be damaged or discredited for generations…. What is decisive, said Weber, ‘is the trained relentlessness in viewing the realities of life and the ability to face such realities and to measure up to them inwardly.’”
She seems to be saying in response to Aristotle that no matter how highly you rate contemplation, the political leader's task requires the rarest virtue.
A few words about the politics of the author, and of the book itself, seem in order. In 2009, Glendon declined the Laetare Medal from the University of Notre Dame when she learned that the institution would be granting an honorary degree to President Obama at the same ceremony. I read The Forum and the Tower without knowing this, though with hindsight it is illuminating.
Glendon names two exceptional cases of leaders who also produced lasting works of scholarship, Cicero and Edmund Burke. Both, as it happens, were conservatives. She identifies Henry Kissinger as another “statesman-scholar,” which is certainly one thing you can call him, if not the one I find springing to mind. The citations from secondary literature are infrequent and tend to come from figures such as Harvey Mansfield, Thomas Pangle, Conor Cruise O’Brien, and Paul Johnson – all of them reliably conservative.
Eleanor Roosevelt appears in the subtitle of the book, rather anomalously. She makes a brief appearance in the final chapter, which is devoted to the Lebanese philosopher Charles Malik’s role the United Nations committee that drew up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The former First Lady chaired the committee; its work is the subject of an earlier book by Glendon. But the whole chapter feels a bit tacked on – almost an effort to impose some balance at the last possible moment. In a way the book really ends with Max Weber’s brooding thoughts on the good and evil that men do.
But that leaves me wishing that Glendon had ventured beyond popularized history and rather broad points about the gap between statecraft and the life of the mind. It would be a better book for addressing her own experience in shuttling between forum and tower -- and for posing questions about the relationship between conservative thought and action. "If one chases after the ultimate good, then the good he seeks may be damaged or discredited for generations" would serve as a critique of various right-wing luminaries, but it's never clear whether or not Glendon means it as one.