February 20, 2012


Out of Virtue, Greatness: Washington as Aristotle's Magnanimous Man (Dr. Jose Yulo, July 4, 2007, Ignatius Insight)

In what ways do the great Greek philosopher's findings parallel Wood's analysis of Washington's character? First, and not coincidentally, the ideal Aristotle wrote of which most conformed to the paradigm set forth by Washington was that of the "proud," "great-souled," or "magnanimous" man. One of the telltale characteristics of the magnanimous man--a man Aristotle felt deserved the highest of all prizes--was his oftentimes haughty and aloof nature, "Hence proud men are thought to be disdainful." Aristotle explained the purpose of this reticence as a response to the perpetually transitory travails of life, travails prone to buckle lesser men to unseemly displays of emotion and abandon. 

Likewise, Washington bore his considerable gravitas buttressed by walls of stoic stone. As Wood wrote, "Despite the continued popularity of Parson Weems's biographical attempt to humanize Washington, the great man remained distant and unapproachable, almost unreal and unhuman." Wood described this otherworldly ethos as incomprehensible to modern sensibilities. It is not too far a stretch to assume it awed the President's contemporaries as well. Ultimately, this was traced by the historian to Washington's being a product of the "pre-egalitarian world of the eighteenth century," a century which lionized exalted military stature and reputation.

As Aristotle was a philosopher who emphasized the metaphysical concept of purpose, this ideal is also woven throughout his ethical study. The magnanimous man then, above all other things, sought out honor as his purpose and end: "It is chiefly with honours and dishonours, then, that the proud man is concerned..." Within this spectrum, the magnanimous man grew conscious of precisely where and from whom he received his honors. Since he occupied a solitary, elevated pedestal by virtue of his stature, he could not welcome honors and praise from peers. Yet, he did accept accolades from "good men" since "they have nothing greater to bestow on him." In contrast, the magnanimous man directly, or indirectly sought to foster hierarchical relationships by disdaining "honour from casual people and on trifling grounds."

Washington, like most of his contemporaries, was concerned with this Aristotelian end. "Honor was the esteem in which they were held..." Wood explained, "To have honor across space and time was to have fame, and fame was what the founders were after, Washington above all." Because of his accomplishments, Washington was the first of the founding generation to achieve this vaunted status. Nevertheless, he carefully cultivated his image. According to Wood, it was this selfsame concern which finally pushed a reluctant Washington to attend the Philadelphia Convention of 1787: "What finally convinced Washington...was the fear that people might think he wanted the government to fail so that he could then manage a military takeover." 

In this, the then general exhibited his Aristotelian disdain for "trifling grounds." What makes this most remarkable was that for Washington, the seeking of power was somehow beneath and the antithesis of his classical reputation. Centuries before, Machiavelli would instruct his patron prince that power should be seen as the ultimate good, or end to political practice. Most modern (and postmodern thought), subsisting in the vacuum created by the renunciation of virtue, is given to this utilitarian dictum. Yet, here is Washington, schooled in fine Greek form, viewing power as Aristotle viewed it, "Power and wealth are desirable for the sake of honour..." As the logic follows, this perspective of lowering power beneath honor seems only possible when virtue, or goodness, is part of the rich fabric of a leader's identity.

Aristotle stated as much when he elaborated on the magnanimous man's moral state: "Now the proud man...must be good in the highest degree; for the better man always deserves more, and the best man most." Considering current political thought, this Greek ideal appears more distant than the millennia already allow. As stated already, power in contemporary politics is seen as an end, therefore its attainment is paramount, and often at the expense of virtue. Aristotle reminds his reader of an alternative, a more real and natural relationship--that of the glory gained not by winning power, but by serving virtue. 
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Posted by at February 20, 2012 6:24 AM

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