This review appears in the Fall 2022 / Winter 2023 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe to the journal, click here.


The Statesman as Thinker: Portraits of Greatness, Courage and Moderation
By Daniel J. Mahoney
(Encounter Books, 2022)

Who amongst us thinks we are living in a time of statesmen? Pressed to name one, who could honestly list a “statesman” bestriding the streets of Washington today? Some of us might throw off the name of a favored political figure, but statesmanship has to be about something more than temporary favorability—indeed, in some ages it might mean the opposite. Where are our Ciceros, our Washingtons, our Pericles? Where, even, are our Daniel Websters or Henry Clays?

Even though we have generally been dissatisfied with our politics through most of American history, we have to acknowledge that we are suffering through a profoundly bad time in our political life. Almost all political institutions are suffering from low ratings of trust. Our political class is distrusted nearly universally. Our politicians seem to cower before the most radical elements in their party for fear of losing a primary election. Existential threats remain unchecked. Our last two presidents have hit historic polling lows for leaders during a growing economy, and we have had three presidential impeachments in less than twenty-five years. It may be fair to say that statesmanship is rare in any age, but it also may be fair to assume that it is rarer in some ages than in others.

The word “statesman” itself has been retained in the lexicon of American democracy, but it has been gutted of its power to inform and influence our political class and the electorate. What happened? Daniel J. Mahoney’s The Statesman as Thinker offers some preliminary thoughts on that question but is even more concerned with recovery than diagnostics.

Mahoney, a professor emeritus at Assumption University and senior fellow at the RealClear Foundation, lays the blame for the loss of statesmanship primarily at two sets of feet—those of the relativists and the Machiavellians.

Egalitarian relativists, he argues, have systematically undermined the possibility of establishing objective ethical and political standards and have gone on to war with the reputations of those we may have once set up as exemplars of statesmanship. The very name “Washington” once called men to strive for the heights of disinterested political virtue. It has recently been reduced to standing for a slave-holding elitist whose image must be scrubbed from our walls, a name that must be removed from our schools.

Mahoney calls this a “toxic egalitarian moralism” that “feels free to repudiate our civilized inheritance and to judge all thought and action in the light of the overlapping determinisms of ‘race, class, and gender.’”

The Machiavellians, the “realists,” have similarly undermined our political language and the possibility of statesmanship by insisting that all political actions are self-serving. They see the gaining and use of “power” as the be-all and end-all of political thought and action. One can see how these two forces—the egalitarian relativists and the modern power theorists—have worked together to undermine a higher concept for politics as a political power wielded for the common good and sometimes to the detriment of the lives or careers of the office-holders themselves.

Mahoney uses his book to call us to exemplars worthy of emulation and of being the standard by which we judge those who wish to hold our political trust. There are profiles of Washington, Burke, Tocqueville, Lincoln, Churchill, de Gaulle, and Václav Havel. But what Mahoney is really doing is using these exemplars to bring the great models and virtues of the ancient world to the modern mind. We see Aristotle, Solon, the Christ of the Sermon on the Mount, the Stoics, and most importantly Cicero.

Mahoney’s emphasis is more on the thought than on the actions of his statesmen. Someone, I hope, will come alongside Mahoney and write a book, perhaps on these same exemplars, exploring their actions in office more than their writings. We will be at a loss, I am afraid, if we hold out for just these narrower models of philosopher kings to rise up in our modern democratic society and be both great literary talents and great wielders of power. We might, however, again find men of action who can be moved by the ideals we have inherited from our exemplars and who will bring virtue back to our political lives.

Much of what ails our political society stems from our inability to strike balances and moderate extremes. This is the core of Mahoney’s statesmanship—the ability to find balance in one’s soul and one’s actions. He sums up the ideal of statesmanship as “greatness tethered to measure, action informed by high prudence (as opposed to mere calculation), the moral virtues at the service of the civic common good, action informed by prudent reflection and a coherent vision of the well-ordered soul.” In these pages we see strength balanced by mercy, ambition in the service of the common good, prudence conjugating principle, ancient wisdom aiding modern liberty, magnanimity tempered by moderation. In our ideological age, recovering such balances would go far toward healing our politics.

For all the strengths of this slim volume, there are several distracting flaws. The biographical sketches all have long passages that seem like a series of literature reviews rather than parts of a book focused on the virtues and limits of these individual statesmen. Mahoney contrasts biographers and books in a way that often makes it seem he is more interested in the state of academic affairs than he is in active political life. In many cases, these profiles are not Mahoney’s own scholarship but anecdotes and quotes from other students of these statesmen.

Mahoney’s rhetoric sometimes drops out of the strong but disciplined search for ancient wisdom in order to punch his political enemies in the nose. Many readers will actually love those passages, but over the long term (the true horizon of statesmanship) they will likely distract from his message.

There is a shadow on nearly every page of Mahoney’s book. It lurks as a comparison to the exemplars he holds up to us. It is cast into the reader’s mind by every virtue the author holds up to us as a measuring rod for our own political leaders. The shadow is that of the forty-fifth president of the United States, who in nearly every way is the opposite of the statesmen Mahoney profiles. Mahoney does a good job of avoiding overt mentions of our recent political experiences throughout the work, letting the difficulties on the right remain present but not considered. His discipline breaks down in the final pages, however, when he addresses Donald Trump by name.

Mahoney celebrates Trump’s rhetoric of defending America, though he calls him a “very imperfect man.” He acknowledges that Trump lacked “the self-discipline, the rhetorical precision, the self-control, and the liberal learning to be a true statesman,” but (he always adds the required “but” to such statements) the man understood his enemies, and his enemies “tell ontological lies.” He is no one’s “beaux ideal of a statesman,” Mahoney tells us. “But nor was he a dangerous, incipient tyrant.” Mahoney does no service to readers by discussing and equivocating on Trump’s qualities and skewering the many sins of the left as a way to make up for Trump’s flaws. It would have been better to have left the forty-fifth president lying unacknowledged in the shadows for readers to consider, as they will, in the light cast by Mahoney’s pantheon.

On that score, I suggest the reader peruse the first two chapters carefully, skim through the biographies of exemplary statesmen, ignore “A Final Word,” and then go back and read the first two chapters again. It is in those first chapters where Mahoney shines and where he begins to take us down a road toward “intellectual and moral recovery”—and toward a return to the ability to differentiate statesmanship from mere political leadership or partisan demagoguery.

Gary L. Gregg II holds the Mitch McConnell Chair in Leadership at the University of Louisville and is director of the McConnell Center.