Why Politicians Could Use an Arts Lesson

A look at some artistic works could reveal something important for the political world.

Political leaders with an intellectual bent usually gravitate towards reading history, often biographies of political figures that they admire or identify with. A smaller number are also drawn towards the arts. George Washington had his favorite play, Joseph Addison’s Tragedy of Cato—about the Roman leader who chooses death over captivity—performed at Valley Forge. Richard Nixon named Tolstoy as his favorite author and George H. Bush War and Peace as his favorite book. John Kennedy and Albert Gore cited Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, the French 19th century novel about the young ambitious Julien Sorel, among their favorites. Senator Robert Kennedy turned to the Greek tragedies after his brother’s assassination

The Bible’s David: Wilderness Years and Triumph

Political figures have probably most often turned to the Bible and Shakespeare and, in an earlier age, Homer, for inspiration, solace, and instruction. For example, those who want to make amends with an estranged party might reference Joseph, who chooses to reconcile with his brothers, despite their having sold him into slavery; Pope John XXIII greeted a delegation of Jewish leaders in 1960 with Joseph’s words: “I am Joseph, your brother.”

Statesmen can also find lessons from David’s remarkable chameleon-like resourcefulness. David violates the conventional hierarchies when he flees the jealous Saul and takes refuge as the bodyguard of his former enemy, the Philistine ruler Achish, King of Gath, Goliath’s country. He flees after Achish’s advisors force the king to exile David. He takes refuge in the land of Moab where he establishes a guerrilla band. He simultaneously maintains ties with the Philistines while conducting raids against them, a tour de force pulled off by killing everyone he encounters during his raids.

Finally, David returns to the Hebrews upon learning that the Philistines have killed his supporter-turned-persecutor, Saul, at the battle of Gilboa, where he composes his great funeral ode to Saul and his son Jonathan:

Saul and Jonathan ...were swifter than eagles,

They were stronger than lions.

Ye daughters of Israel, weep over Saul,

Who clothed you in scarlet, with other delights,

Who put on ornaments of gold upon your apparel.

How are the mighty fallen in the midst of battle! ( 2 Samuel I: 17-27)

The funeral ode no doubt reflected his heart-felt sorrow about the death of his early patron Saul and his beloved friend Jonathan. Yet, his lamentation was also probably a public message meant to unify a fractured Hebrew kingdom under his leadership.

David completes his remarkable comeback from rebel bandleader to founder of Jerusalem by first assuming the kingship of Judea with its capital in Hebron. He then publicly punishes his senior general, Joab, for killing David’s rival, Abner, the strongman to the north, even though the murder seals David’s control over that area. Finally when two of David’s soldiers kill Ishbosheth, Saul’s son, to ingratiate themselves with David, he has them killed to demonstrate that he will deal fairly with his former rivals. If a political leader needs a come-back-saga, David is it.   

Ancient Greece: Métis versus Bie

The ancient Greeks were the first to develop a word for the kind of cunning that David exemplified. The Greek word, métis, is related to metiao: “to meditate or plan,” in addition to metioomai:“to contrive.” Together, the word, which has no exact equivalent in English, conveys the ability to understand an adversary’s motivations and actions, to think ahead, and to be resourceful. There is no better word to explain the challenges of planning for war and high-stakes diplomacy.

A political leader could learn about métis from reading the Iliad, where Homer contrasts Odysseus, who personifies métis, with Achilles, who personifies bie, the word for brute strength. While Achilles is endowed with great strength and bravery, he is also given to self-destructive rages and self-absorption that almost lead to the Greeks’ defeat. He places his pride before the Greeks’ interest when he withdraws from battle in Book 2 after arguing with Agamemnon over what he considered his legitimate due in war spoils. Achilles rejects Odysseus’ attempts to convince him to return to battle in Book 9, sensing correctly that the shrewd diplomat has not told the entire truth about Agamemnon’s peace offer: “I hate the man [Odysseus] like the very Gates of Death who says one thing but hides another in his heart.” (9.378-79)

Achilles’ rage again nearly results in a Greek defeat when he decides to return to battle to avenge the death of his great friend, Patroclus, without allowing his men to fortify themselves with a necessary meal: