November 11, 2016


Collaborative Greatness: The Lesson of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton (Carson Holloway, October 5th, 2016, Public Discourse)

On the one hand, we often indulge the democratic tendency to tear down the great, to seek out and magnify their flaws, to minimize or deny their virtues. We do this to reassure ourselves--in the face of the evidence before our eyes--that we really are all equal not only in our rights, but in our capacities as well.

This tendency is to be resisted not only because it is false--it is obvious that some people make contributions to the common good that exceed those made by others--but also because it undermines the aspiration to the greatness that we need. The potentially great are still human, after all. Men like Lincoln and Churchill were not above human praise. On the contrary, they loved honor and wanted to make contributions for which they would be esteemed by their fellow citizens. Those souls who long for such honor will not rouse themselves to exertion on behalf of the common good if they see great statesmen belittled, and greatness itself debunked.

We can successfully resist this democratic, leveling tendency because admiration for human greatness is rooted in human nature. When our minds are not distorted by ideology or resentment, most human beings will admit, readily and gratefully, that some of their fellows excel in some important endeavor. We even take pleasure in doing so.

Here, however, we encounter the opposite danger. Our natural attraction to human greatness often leads us to exaggerate it. We are given to hero worship.

This error may tempt even those who pursue the philosophic study of politics. We read, for example, Aristotle's account in his Nicomachean Ethics of the magnanimous or great-souled man--the man who believes himself worthy of the highest honors of the community because he really does deserve them. In other words, such a man has confidence in his ability to care for the community's most important needs because he really does possess the ability. Charmed by the grandeur of Aristotle's portrait, we may imagine such a man to be utterly self-sufficient, having within himself all that is needed to serve and even save the nation. Perhaps we are inclined to project such completeness or perfection on great men because we are acutely aware of--and indeed frightened and humiliated by--our dependence, contingency, and fragility, and therefore want to believe in the possibility of human self-sufficiency.

This grandiose vision of political excellence, however, is no less hostile to the development of real greatness than the democratic denial of its existence. It sets a standard of greatness that no actual human being could achieve. It therefore must end in disillusionment. Ultimately, it discourages us from striving after the kind of greatness that a human being really can achieve.

The truth of the matter is found, as usual, somewhere between these false and pernicious extremes. Great individuals really do exist. There are human beings who excel in virtue and ability, citizens to whom the community owes far more honor than it owes to its ordinarily decent and useful members. On the other hand, such figures are not utterly self-sufficient. They owe their greatness in no small measure to the assistance of others.

Aristotle himself reminds us of this and thus corrects the misunderstanding that we might derive from his portrait of the great-souled man. To be humanly self-sufficient, he teaches, lies not in not needing anyone or anything but rather in having the things one needs for a fully human life--including other human beings: family, friends, fellow citizens.

This lesson in truly human, collaborative greatness is brought home to us in the context of our own regime and our own history by Stephen Knott and Tony Williams's excellent study, Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America. Founding a new nation--founding, indeed, a new kind of nation: the first modern republic--is an act of political greatness by any measure. As Knott and Williams's title reminds us, and as their book amply demonstrates, this great achievement was possible only on the basis of the close cooperation of our first president and his chief minister, our first secretary of the treasury.

Posted by at November 11, 2016 4:40 AM