04 Literature & politics

October 2010

Literature & politics

by James Piereson

A review of Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order by Charles Hill

For over a decade now, a group of senior historians at Yale University has led a two-semester seminar called “Studies in Grand Strategy” in which they guide undergraduates through an intensive study of the great writers on international politics from Thucydides to Machiavelli to Churchill and Kissinger. The course was initially devised by Professors Donald Kagan, Paul Kennedy, and John Lewis Gaddis as a means of encouraging students to think broadly about the roles of strategy and statesmanship in international affairs and to help them to understand current controversies against the long historical backdrop of war, diplomacy, and the collapse of nations and empires. The course is controversial among some faculty and students on the Yale campus who think that the study of statesmanship and statecraft is “elitist” and thus in conflict with democratic ideals. It is, nevertheless, a highly popular course, as more than one hundred students apply each year for the twenty or so reserved seats in the class.

Professors Kagan, Kennedy, and Gaddis were soon joined in this enterprise by Charles Hill, a veteran of the U.S. diplomatic service who worked closely and successfully over the decades with prominent political figures, including especially Henry Kissinger and George Schultz during their respective tenures as Secretary of State. Professor Hill thus brought to the seminar a measure of practical experience to complement the scholarly understanding of his academic colleagues. In view of that experience, he has a great deal to tell Yale’s students about the various international controversies in which he has been engaged, from the war in Vietnam to the conflict in the Middle East to the end game in the Cold War. Judging by his new book, however, he also has a great deal to say about the intersection between great literature and high politics and about the lessons to be drawn from the study of great books.

The general aim of Grand Strategies is to resurrect the study of great literature as a training ground for diplomacy and statecraft. There was a time not so long ago when it was assumed that a basic familiarity with the classic texts was a prerequisite for the practice of high politics. It was not so much that these works of history, philosophy, and literature offered practical lessons that could be put to immediate use but that they revealed the workings of human nature under the pressures of war and political conflict. By studying the plays of Sophocles and Shakespeare, the histories of Thucydides, Xenophon, and Gibbon, the essays of Montaigne, or the novels of Dickens and Jane Austen, one acquired wisdom about politics and statecraft that could be applied to any number of future circumstances.

This idea—that human nature drives politics—fell into disrepute in academic circles because it lacked a scientific foundation for the true causes of war and political conflict. The theory generally adopted by political scientists today holds that war and conflict arise from impersonal economic or demographic forces that cannot be controlled or directed by statesmen. From this point of view, statecraft and statesmanship are either illusions or ideals that have been made obsolete by the rise of democracy and capitalism—that is, by the reign of impersonal forces such as class, technology, and mass opinion. Since great works of literature tell us little about this dimension of politics, they are of little use as guides to the world around us (or so political scientists tell their students). Professor Hill is skeptical of the ambition to reduce high politics to a science and dismayed by the expulsion of great literary works from the curriculum in foreign affairs. In Grand Strategies, he tries to show how and why the study of great literature is an essential foundation both for the study and practice of international politics.

The originality of this book lies not in the author’s claim that important literary works address the great issues of politics (since others have said as much) but rather in the argument that these works have actually shaped the world of nations because of the influence they have had on kings, princes, generals, and statesmen. The relationship between literature and statecraft is interwoven and reciprocal because, as he writes, “literature informs leaders whose actions may later become the stuff of literature,” much as the Iliad instructed Pericles whose deeds were then chronicled by Thucydides, whose writings influenced statesmen of later generations, and so on. Mr. Hill reminds us that great literature and high politics occupy a common ground because both address essential questions of the human condition. Politics, he suggests, is a literary realm, a terrain defined by imagination and creativity. This being so, the literary tradition of the West is closely connected to the historical events that, over the generations, shaped the international system.

The author organizes the work around three formative historical periods: the classical age of Greece and Rome when states were formed out of family and tribal customs and when the first inter-state systems took shape; the Reformation era when, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe, the modern system of independent nation states was first established as a solution to the wars of religion; and the modern era, beginning with the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, during which the universal ideals of equality and freedom have been used to attack the nation state and the international system built around it.

The political upheavals of each period provide a backdrop against which Mr. Hill explores and interprets many of the great works of the Western canon from the dawn of history to the present time. His purpose is twofold: first, to illustrate how the authors of these works were preoccupied with the pressing challenges of politics and statecraft that defined their eras; and, second, to tease out of these works some of the guiding principles of statecraft as expressed in the founding of states, the creation of laws, the formulation of strategy, and the practice of diplomacy.

With respect to classical Greece and Rome, the author traces the gradual development of states and international politics through the writings of Homer, Aeschylus, Thucydides, Xenophon, and Virgil. He emphasizes especially the ways by which the primitive international arrangements depicted in the Iliad gave way over time to the sophisticated balance of power described by Thucydides in The Peloponnesian War and how that system was destroyed when the delicate balance between Athens and Sparta was upset.

In the early modern period in Europe, the religious wars brought forth by the Reformation created another crisis in the international system. How could Protestants and Catholics be induced to live peacefully with one another under the umbrella of a common state? How could an international system composed of both Protestant and Catholic states be made to function? In a series of deft chapters, the author demonstrates how Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Hobbes, Milton, and Swift (along with others) grappled with the questions of disorder and legitimacy brought to the surface by the religious wars of their time. The pattern of thought illuminated in this literature, as he argues, established the basis not only for the modern state with its delineated borders and sovereign powers, but also with its legitimacy based upon the consent of the governed.

If there is an overarching thesis to this book, it is that the state system invented and imagined in the early modern period continues to provide the most effective and realistic foundation for progress, rights, and international order. The Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years War in 1648, established the basis for the modern state system by giving to each prince the right to declare the religion of his own state while guaranteeing freedom of worship to members of minority religions. That agreement effectively dissolved the Holy Roman Empire by decentralizing the governance of Europe into numerous states and principalities. Many of the key elements of the Westphalian system—sovereign states with clear borders, majority rule combined with minority rights, a balance of power among states, and international conferences and agreements—continue to define the structure of international politics down to the present time.

The literature of the modern era, beginning with the Enlightenment, has challenged the modern state system with the weapons of ideology and revolution. Dickens, in A Tale of Two Cities, expressed this challenge in his contrasts between London and Paris during the years of the French Revolution. “The French Revolution,” Mr. Hill writes (paraphrasing Dickens),

threatens to engulf world order; English common sense upholds the civilized system. England is a haven for sanity. Private life can exist in London; in Paris everything is acted out in front of the People, who become a mob.

The lineaments of modern revolution are all on display in Paris: mass violence and terror, worship of the collective will and disparagement of the individual, and, above all, the attempt to abolish the nation-state and to reorganize the politics of Europe on the basis of universal principles.

Yet the French Revolution, its manifest failures and excesses notwithstanding, was a signal event in modern history because it challenged the legitimacy of the existing state system for the first time. In that sense, its importance in modern politics is on the order of that of the Reformation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the conflict between Sparta and Athens in the ancient world. In an illuminating chapter titled “Disorder and War,” the author sets up the French Revolution as a backdrop to a discussion of revolution, legitimacy, and the fate of civilization in the works of a wide-ranging cast of modern writers, including Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Conrad, Lenin, Thomas Mann, Proust, and T. S. Eliot. This chapter, while not advancing any single point, succeeds in making several—that revolution has been a prominent theme in modern literature, that its prominence tells us something important about the modern temper, and that one would do well to look to this literature in order to understand it.

Does this pattern portend the dissolution of the nation state? Undoubtedly, the nation state has been weakened by efforts to transfer power to international institutions along with the processes of globalization, technology, and migration that seem to disaggregate and devolve power downward to new states and subnational groups. At the same time, the United States, the dominant power in international politics, is ill prepared by ideals and tradition to defend the nation-state system. Even as national sovereignty dissolves, no realistic alternative to it has yet emerged. Yet, as the author concludes, “the nation state and the Westphalian international system of which it is the basic entity remain the only working mechanism for world order.”

Grand Strategies is an unusual volume, filled with sharp insights about a daunting list of writers and circuitous pathways and detours that eventually lead the reader to hidden destinations. It makes its case diplomatically by drawing the reader into a way of thinking about the political world rather than by pressing a single argument or set of conclusions. It is as original as it is unusual, the rare volume that provokes neither agreement nor disagreement, but rather independent thought about the worlds we have lost and the one we have inherited.

James Piereson is a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 29 October 2010, on page 65

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