The James Wilson Foundation on Natural Rights and the American Founding

“Ballast on the Ship of State: Statesmanship as Human Excellence” – Professor Daniel Mahoney in Modern Age

In an essay for Modern Age, Professor Daniel Mahoney of Assumption University demonstrates that true statesmanship consists in moral excellence and self-control. He argues against moral relativism, as well as the Machiavellian view of politics that sees a desire to acquire and wield power as man’s sole political motivator. Mahoney acknowledges that pacifism is not a viable approach to the statesman’s task of managing crises. Instead, he draws upon historical examples to show how great statesmen have resisted evil and defended civilization by conducting themselves in accordance with the moral and intellectual virtues recognized by classical thinkers such as Cicero and Aristotle. Napoleon, who rejected virtue in the pursuit of absolute power, only brought forth “disaster and bloodshed.” Churchill, however, upheld the principles of law and liberty in the face of Nazi tyranny through honoring his allies and remaining committed to “moral vigor.” Mahoney affirms that, if the “lost art of statesmanship” is to be restored, individuals must embrace moderation and reflection while rejecting ideas that history has proven false.

Some excerpts from the piece:

“Certain philosophers destroy the moral grounds of statesmanship by undermining the intrinsic link between the highest goods for human beings and the exercise of the moral and intellectual virtues. If vulgar pleasure or shameless self-seeking, or even a more high-minded identification of philosophy with refined pleasure, becomes the great desideratum, then there is no reason for a citizen, statesman, or human being to “cultivate friendship, justice, or liberality.” Power and pleasure become the exclusive ends and means of human and political life, and the distinction between the honorable statesman and the rapacious tyrant is eliminated in one fell swoop.”

“What is needed is a return to true realism, to a moral conception of politics that is fully realistic but that also acknowledges that the good, the search for legitimate authority or even the best regime, the exercise of the practical virtues—courage, moderation, prudence, and justice—are as “real” as, and certainly more ennobling and humanizing than, the reckless and groundless pursuit of power as an end in itself.”

“To recover the lost art of statesmanship, we must free ourselves from dogmatic, cynical, and reductive categories that block our access to things as they are.”

Read the full essay here.

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Law and liberty cannot rationally become the objects of our love, unless they first become the objects of our knowledge.
— James Wilson, Lectures on Law, 1790