Finest Hour 158, Spring 2013
By Justin D. Lyons
WHAT GAVE CHURCHILL SUCH INFLUENCE OVER THE FATE OF HIS NATION WAS NOT MERELY HIS CONSTITUTIONAL POSITION, BUT HIS ABILITY TO STAMP HIS OWN UNYIELDING COURAGE AND DETERMINATION ONTO A FEARFUL AND VACILLATING POPULACE: TO BE THE ENCOURAGEMENT AND EMBODIMENT OF ALL THAT WAS BEST IN THEM—AND THUS TRULY TO A LEAD
Statesmanship is revealed in the joining of political skill with profound political knowledge. Looking to a coherent body of political thought as a guide for action is what distinguishes the statesman from the political actor, or the mere politician.
Every sane adult possesses some degree of political knowledge—taxes, police, laws, war and peace at the very least. There is a continuum of such knowledge. It is enhanced and increased through experience and participation in political affairs, reaching an apex when these subjects are coupled with a deep understanding of political matters and their relation to human life as a whole: “At the top of the ladder we find the great statesman who possesses political knowledge, political understanding, political wisdom, political skill in the highest degree….”1 The statesman, then, approaches, if not achieves, something like political philosophy put into action.
The difficulty with writing about a statesman is that those thought to have achieved that exalted rank rarely write anything like a treatise on their political philosophy. If one wishes to understand the guides they follow, one must extract their political thought from the evidence available, by noting consistencies in their actions and the speeches that mark their political affairs.
For the student of statesmanship, Churchill yields near-unbounded riches. He was a major actor in the greatest events of his century. His six decades in politics produced a remarkably copious record, not only of political views, but serious reflections on the nature of man. He delivered thousands of speeches—they fill eight volumes—and wrote over 800 articles and essays for the public press, plus an autobiography, a novel, a travelogue, and many single and multi-volume histories, speech collections and biographies–altogether fifty books in eighty volumes. This wealth of sources has fueled countless historical and biographical assessments of Churchill’s life and career, and gives us a wide field of reflection in considering his statesmanship.
Churchill is that unique political leader in whom thought and action are united. Statesmanship is fundamentally concerned with leadership, that is, it is fundamentally concerned with action—but not ordinary action, and not unreflective action. Truly great deeds must have the spirit and the mind of the actor behind them. Churchill led his people in a desperate battle, but his leadership was not unreasoned or incoherent—if it were, it would not have met with success.
Churchill himself stressed that effective leadership depends upon consistent and coherent thought: “Those who are possessed of a definite body of doctrine and of deeply rooted convictions upon it will be in a much better position to deal with the shifts and surprises of daily affairs than those who are merely taking short views, and indulging their natural impulses as they are evoked by what they read from day to day.”2 Such a remark should provoke us to ask: Did Churchill himself possess a definite body of doctrine? If so, of what did it consist? From what sources was it drawn? One place to start looking is in the political thought the West inherited from the ancient Greeks.3
Political Ethics in Ancient Greece
The statesman is an important figure in the works of Plato and Aristotle—the political ruler in the true sense. The art of political rule involves both theoretical knowledge and the ability to use that knowledge to shape the community in the struggle between the necessary and the desirable.4 The ancients conceived of politics as the “architectonic art”—as providing the architecture of a society. Aristotle tells us that because the aim of politics is the highest good for human beings, it necessarily includes the ends of all the other arts—all the activities of man.
Politics, in the ancient understanding, reaches to every aspect of life. The true political community, the polis, is not achieved simply by living together and interacting economically; it exists for the sake of living well—not materially but in terms of virtue—and raising its citizens to the fullest human life.5 The polis must give careful attention to character formation—to virtue and vice, not simply to business and property.
Politics must therefore concern itself with ethics. In fact, ethics i s a kind of politics—an inquiry or study of the habits of soul. It is intimately related to politics because the art of legislation is the treatment of the soul. Politics is the application of knowledge of the nature of man to the guidance of the conduct of man: “for we posited the end of politics to be the highest good, and politics takes the greatest care in making citizens of a certain quality, i.e., good and disposed to noble actions.”6 The concern of the statesman, then, is to guide the lives of the citizens toward these ends through political forms and practice.
One of the greatest challenges to this classical understanding of statesmanship is that the modern democratic conception of politics does not allow the extension of governmental authority into the lives of its citizens in anything like the degree envisioned by classical politics. The aim of the political community toward virtue above all else necessarily leads to a need for legislation of the private things as well as public. Hence, the laws must deal with many areas of human life which the modern understanding would classify as off limits to public authority.7
Indeed, modern democratic sensibilities rebel at the idea of the individual citizen being shaped in any important way by the regime or the statesman. Politics is no longer a matter of soul; therefore its reach and scope has been greatly diminished since the ancient Greeks.
Churchill’s Classical Frame of Reference
While classical politics concerned itself with a much greater range of issues than today, it also perceived that there were limits on what could be achieved, or should be attempted, politically. Here Churchill was in agreement. There have, of course, been modern political projects which embodied absolute control over the lives of citizens: Communism and Nazism.
Churchill rejected them absolutely. Hitler was a creature of evil; Stalin was no less ruthless and bloodthirsty. But, beyond this, Churchill rejected their regimes because they destroyed the individuality of their citizens, dehumanized life, and represented unhealthy political principles. He perceived something of the understanding of politics as the treatment of souls and, hence, the task of the statesman in warding off political diseases from both the bodies and souls of his citizens. As he said in 1928:
There is a strong parallel between politics and medicine. Those in politics can see some of the diseases with which medicine is grappling. Communism is a form of cancer. It is a political cancer—the revolt of a single cell which perverted and corrupted those immediately round it and established a foreign principle of life governed by laws unknown to the rest of the Empire, entailing endless misery, manifesting itself by the most violent symptoms and requiring remedies about which there is great difference of opinion. [Laughter.] Some say the knife, but all are agreed that the remedies should be prompt and drastic. [Cheers.]8
Churchill’s detestation of political forms that subordinate the individual to the state flows from his understanding of human nature. Politics must take into account certain realities of human makeup. To attempt to destroy or suppress them leads to tyranny. It is not only because human nature puts practical limits on political programs that the state should not attempt to form society in preconceived moulds; it is because freedom and happiness go hand in hand. Like Aristotle, Churchill understood the true political arrangement to be rule over free and equal persons, providing all with the opportunity to reach their fullest potential. And this is what he encouraged Great Britain to be.
The Essence of Churchill’s Leadership
Churchill manifested a deep concern for continued freedom of speech and dissent as the backbone of a healthy political arrangement. The all-embracing character of classical politics is most closely approximated by a modern democracy at war. When a nation is fighting for its survival, the lives of its citizens are necessarily more directed than in peacetime. Churchill viewed this as a regrettable necessity.9 Yet, even under great duress, Britain did not attempt or contemplate measures to crush the individuality of citizens. Churchill was extremely proud of the British political tradition—to him, English Common Law was a monument deserving of enduring fame. He devoted his powers to inspiring Britons to be worthy of their way of life.
Here is another meeting place between the ancients and Churchill’s statesmanship. While Churchill was not in favor of invasive governmental action to form the character of citizens; he was nonetheless concerned with that character. Whether lecturing at University of London on the proper form of education10 or rallying Britain to defend the right, he used his powers of speech and persuasion to lead his fellow citizens to display in action the true, the just, and the noble.
While Churchill believed that the British people possessed great strengths, he also knew that the modern world and even democracy itself could sap those strengths. He knew that political communities need leaders who can help people overcome the temptations and fears that prevent thoughtful and resolute action. To some extent this task requires that the leader stand outside of the regime, that he not be subject to the same weaknesses as those he leads.
In considering how democracies may be preserved, Aristotle suggests that they need something to counteract democratic excesses.11 The best ruler for a democracy, he says, is in fact someone with aristocratic tendencies.
Churchill, the partisan of democracy, was also the product of Victorian aristocracy. The champion of the many, he admired the excellence of the few; thus his own confidence in his leadership. What gave Churchill such influence over the fate of his nation was not merely his constitutional position, but his ability to stamp his own unyielding courage and determination onto a fearful and vacillating populace, to be the encouragement and embodiment of all that was best in them—and thus truly to lead.
Understanding the Nature of Man
Politics for Churchill was also the application of knowledge of human nature to the guidance of human conduct. But using human nature as a guide requires understanding of the role and meaning of history in human affairs. The progressive philosophy of history posits a time when the story of man will end—when human existence will resolve itself into a final form. This “end of history” will see the end of conflict, an end to all problems presented by human nature, a state of perfect peace and freedom.12
Such an understanding was rejected by the ancients—and by Churchill, who found in history relevant lessons for present action precisely because the nature of man remains consistent and unchanging. Equally, Churchill rejected political approaches built on such a philosophy as necessitating cruelty, or foolishness.13
Neither did Churchill think that democracy would inevitably triumph because history demanded it. He thought democracy was the best political approach, and that it could triumph—but only if democratic peoples conducted themselves in a worthy manner.
In rejecting the progressive philosophy of an end to history, Churchill acknowledged the complexity of human existence which resisted its simplification or systematization. He knew that in politics, one does not deal in absolutes or certainties. His political approach can be summed up nicely with an excerpt from a broadcast delivered in 1944:
I hope you will not imagine that I am going to try to make you some extraordinary pronouncement tonight, and tell you exactly how all the problems of mankind in war and peace are going to be solved. I only thought you would like me to have a short talk with you about how we are getting on….14
Churchill the statesman found his way in an uncertain world through prudence; he makes genuine choices rather than being pulled along by the flow of events. Those choices may be judged to be right or wrong, just or unjust—but if they are not made, they cannot be so judged. Churchill made judgements because he believed there is a right way and a wrong way to proceed. Yet he realized that the nature of the world is such that even right decisions are not guaranteed success.
Churchill’s ability to chart and maintain a consistent course for Britain 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. These two forms of greatness elevate him to the highest level of statesmanship.
Leadership and the Temples of Peace
Churchill used the phrase “temple of peace” as a desired product of international peace-keeping organizations.15 But that phrase can be applied in a larger sense to the conduct of politics as a whole, which strives to mitigate conflict and direct the community toward the common good. In Churchill’s understanding, however, while the temple may be laid on secure foundations, it can never be finally established. In the search for peace, as he saw it, the duty of statesmen is unending—and never finished. Churchill stands between the excessive confidence of the utopians and the excessive fear of the appeasers. Peace is not guaranteed, he tells us. It can only be achieved by long journeys over perilous roads. But the perils that must be faced are no excuse for shirking the quest.
The study of Churchill’s statesmanship deserves a central place in the scholarship of the politics of freedom.16 He believed in the metaphysical freedom of mankind, and insisted that it should be reflected in political arrangements. He believed that political freedom was necessary to the flourishing of the human spirit. But the conditions of freedom, he warned us repeatedly, do not simply happen. Humanity must fight to establish them, struggle to maintain them, and sacrifice to defend them.
Churchill brought to these tasks not only immense courage but a great degree of political knowledge, understanding, wisdom, and skill—and because these tasks have no end in this world, the lessons of his statesmanship will remain central to the political experience. They are, to echo the Greek historian Thucydides, “a possession for all time.”
Churchill led a particular people in a particular struggle in a particular time. Yet that struggle was only a part of the contest of age-old forces which have always shaped the experience of man: the desire for peace, goodwill, and freedom; the unacceptability of cruelty, hatred and conquest.
We may therefore take his 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.”17
Dr. Lyons is Associate Professor of Political Science and History at Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio. Certain reflections herein derive from the author’s “Remembering Winston Churchill: A Possession for All Time,” Finest Hour 127, Summer 2005.
1. Leo Strauss, What Is Political Philosophy? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959), 14.
2. Winston S. Churchill, The Gathering Storm (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1948), 210.
3. Churchill mentions having read both Plato and Aristotle in My Early Life (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1930), 126.
4. See for example Aristotle, The Politics. Translated and with an Introduction, Notes, and Glossary by Carnes Lord (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 118 (1288b21-27).
5. “It is evident, therefore, that the city [polis] is not a partnership in a location and for the sake of not committing injustice against each other and of transacting business. These things must necessarily be present if there is to be a city, but not even when all of them are present is it yet a city, but [the city is] the partnership in living well both of households and families for the sake of a complete and self-sufficient life.” The Politics, 99 (1280b29-34).
6. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics. Translated with Commentaries and Glossary by Hippocrates G. Apostle (Grinnell, Iowa: The Peripatetic Press, 1984), 13 (1099b30-32).
7. The regime constructed in Plato’s dialogue, The Laws, e.g., concerns itself with (to a more modern sensibility) such immensely personal decisions as whether, when and who a citizen will marry. See 721b-d, 772d-774c. Plato, The Laws of Plato, Translated, with Notes and an Interpretive Essay, by Thomas L. Pangle (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 108-09, 160-62.
8. Churchill, “Communism and Cancer,” speech to the Royal Society of Medicine, London, 15 November 1928, in Robert Rhodes James, ed., Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches 1897-1963, 8 volumes (New York: Bowker, 1974), V 4538.
9. See “Defence Regulation 18B,” 21 October 1941,in Complete Speeches, VI 6497-98.
10. Churchill, “The Essential Verities,” speech, University of London, 18 November 1948, Complete Speeches, VII 7744-46.
11. For an example of a discussion of how regimes are moderated by pursuing practices that run contrary to their natural tendencies, see Aristotle, The Politics, 189-90, (1319b33-1320b17).
12. The primary exemplars of the progressive philosophy of history are the writings of Kant, Hegel and Marx. The progress of man through history posited by these writers, while driven by different forces in each theory, is marked by conflict. Progress occurs through conflict. Whatever the appearances of any particular moment of historical strife, the general trend is always forward. But progressive philosophies of history do not hold conflict to be a permanent part of the human condition. They look to a time when conflict will be resolved, when it will no longer define human relations. The old social and political forms will then be archaic and meaningless. Political life as we know it will be done away with—will be transcended. This is what one modern writer called “the end of history”: the point at which the historical process has come to fruition, has realized its end.
13. Churchill rejected the progressive philosophy of history on both historical grounds (human history does not tell of a necessary progress, or give any promise that it will occur) and on philosophic grounds (the nature of man is fundamentally fixed, and the problems this presents, for both domestic and international political communities, are those which any realistic and reasonable political understanding must take into account). To deny these facts, or pretend that they will be overcome, leads to unacceptable political consequences: To demand that they disappear, as in Communist schemes, necessitates cruelty and oppression; to assume that they will disappear leaves us dangerously out of touch with reality.
14. Churchill, “The Hour of Our Greatest Effort,” broadcast, 26 March 1944, Complete Speeches, VII 6907.
15. As in “The Sinews of Peace,” usually referred to as the “Iron Curtain speech,” Fulton, Missouri, 5 March 1946, Complete Speeches, VII 7285-93.
16. The phrase comes from Harry V. Jaffa, “On the Necessity of a Scholarship of the Politics of Freedom,” in Jaffa, ed., Statesmanship: Essays in Honor of Sir Winston Spencer Churchill (Durham, North Carolina: Carolina Academic Press, 1981), 1-9.
17. Churchill, “The Deterrent—Nuclear Warfare,” House of Commons, 1 March 1955, Complete Speeches, VIII 8633.