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Wanted: Classically Ideal Leaders

Today we find the words “leadership” and “character” on everyone’s lips. The ship of state is passing through stormy seas, and we are seeking capable captains. In this search we must ask ourselves two difficult questions: what type of leadership is best? and what type of character does this require?

Machiavelli’s The Prince provides one answer: Machiavelli argues that an amoral style of leadership is best as ideals can blind one to reality. This style of leadership requires resourcefulness and ruthlessness. Another answer is that of Aristotle, Cicero, and Plutarch. These classical thinkers assert that leadership requires courage and energy. This requires a robust character that is not only prudent but virtuous.

While the Machiavellian vision has its appeals, the classical vision is superior. While recognizing the limitations of politics, its unique qualities are best suited for healing democracy.

Capable and Virtuous

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Politics magnificently present the classical ideal of leadership. Among individuals, there are vast variations in experience, character, and competence. Some are better suited or better prepared for public service. Thus, society must be selective in choosing its leaders. In the Politics, Aristotle says, “If, therefore, there is any one superior in virtue and in the power of performing the best actions, him we ought to follow and obey, but he must have the capacity for action as well as virtue.” The Machiavellian vision correctly emphasizes capacity, as without this nothing can be accomplished in politics. However, Aristotle asserts that this capacity must be for the “best actions.”

What then are the best actions? An Aristotelian statesman recognizes that the state’s highest ends are promoting human happiness. It requires virtue to correctly identify and pursue this end. In a democratic system, this requires courage as popular opinion can oppose virtue. A Machiavellian would lack this courage, however, as it would require them to sacrifice power, their most cherished possession. In contrast, Aristotle praises self-sacrifice for a worthy cause in the Nicomachean Ethics: “He would choose to feel pleasure intensely for a short time over feeling mildly for a long time, to live nobly for one year over living in a haphazard way for many years, and to do one great and noble action over many small ones.”

While this vision can be criticized as elitist, it promotes democratic flourishing. Just as a gifted violinist can produce a better performance on a Stradivarius than an average violinist, so can a virtuous leader help a society improve (Cf. Aristotle’s Politics). Aristotelian statesmanship discerns popular opinion’s reliability. This often yields insight: “And as a feast to which all the guests contribute is better than a banquet furnished by a single man so a multitude is a better judge of many things than any individual.” Nevertheless, leaders with virtue and capacity best serve the people, rather than those with capacity alone. While a Machiavellian prince can ensure security, Aristotelian statesmanship can lead to true democratic flourishing.

Persuasive Yet Honest

How then can the classical ideal operate within the limitations of politics? As Machiavelli correctly observes, appearances tend to produce power. Furthermore, it is often easier to obtain one’s objectives by abandoning one’s principles. Cicero thoroughly addresses these objections with the unique perspective of a philosopher extensively involved in politics. He demonstrates that morally disciplined eloquence can overcome obstacles. In On Duties, Cicero says, “…great is the admiration bestowed on him who speaks fluently and wisely, and those who hear him think that he also has more intelligence and good sense than other men.” Leadership in a democratic society always requires persuasion.

Possessing a favorable appearance leads to greater popularity, and therefore greater power. Cicero is quick to warn those who would pervert language to mask dishonesty, however. “But of all forms of injustice, none is more heinous than that of the men who, while they practice fraud to the utmost of their ability, do it in such a way that they appear to be good men.” The Machiavellian doctrine of expediency over right undermines society. If leaders adopt a fraudulent approach towards dialogue, dialogue itself becomes corrupt. Debate becomes characterized by a barbaric struggle for greater power.

If any and all rhetorical means are acceptable, how can compromise be achieved? Ciceronian eloquence provides a clear alternative to this outcome. It provides clarity rather than inflaming passion through dishonesty. One can achieve victory in debates without compromising ideals. Thus, the classical vision of leadership leads to democratic flourishing through morally disciplined eloquence.

Consistent in Crisis

Of course, one could protest that no one can truly embody the classical vision. Plutarch illustrates how Pericles reflected these ideals in his career, however. Serving in democratic Athens, Pericles was familiar with the limitations of politics. Narrow-minded partisanship and demagoguery were as common in Athens as they are in our day, yet Pericles exemplified extraordinary leadership. His politics demonstrated not only prudence but courage. When pressed to pursue a more aggressive foreign policy, Pericles rejected this. Instead he established the wiser policy of consolidating Athenian power within Greece to ward off Spartan ambition.

Plutarch compared Pericles to a skilled physician who patiently administers to another’s needs. Pericles did not become domineering or passive in his leadership. Instead he discerned political realities and accordingly shaped opinion to achieve his goals. As a result, he became immensely influential without sacrificing his principles. This approach led to Athens experiencing a golden age in art. When criticized on the expenditures of building the public works, Pericles offered to pay for them himself. Moved by his sincerity, his rivals recanted their criticism, allowing the works to continue.

Nevertheless, Pericles faced substantial challenges. War and a plague soon ravaged the city. In this hour, did Pericles adopt the Machiavellian doctrine of expediency? No. Despite these dramatic reversals of fortune, Pericles held firm to his ideals. While Pericles acted decisively, Plutarch also describes him as patiently enduring popular criticisms until his death. Notably, Athens became overwhelmed by a “flood of corruption” that Pericles’s leadership had resisted almost single-handedly. Plutarch’s portrait of Pericles demonstrates that the classical vision is possible even under intense conditions.

Towards a Restored Democracy

What type of leadership shall we then embrace? While the Machiavellian vision correctly identifies the importance of appearances and ability, it does so in a moral vacuum. The classical vision addresses these necessities within a framework of integrity. A statesman must be capable of the greatest actions: virtuous actions. They must master eloquence without duplicity.

Moreover, Plutarch demonstrates that the classical ideals of leadership can lead to great success despite constraints. To cite a much greater figure than Plutarch, it is possible to be as wise as a serpent yet harmless as a dove. There can be no doubt that politics requires wisdom; nevertheless, the classical vision of wisdom is of a higher order than Machiavelli’s. Through examining Aristotle’s, Cicero’s, and Plutarch’s understandings of leadership, we can steer the ship of state towards the safer shores of a truly restored democracy.

Tymon Zhou

Author: Tymon Zhou

Tymon Zhou attends the Elon University School of Law, having graduated with a political science major from Brigham Young University. He enjoys reading and playing piano in his spare time. He writes to explore and refine his thinking.

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