Why Politicians Could Use an Arts Lesson

March 26, 2015 Topic: Society

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:

“You talk of food?

I have no taste for food-what I really crave

Is slaughter and blood and the choking groans of men!” (19.253-55).

Odysseus barely manages to convince Achilles that his men must place limits on their sorrow and passions; they have an animal need to eat and drink even if it is in preparation to kill and to die. Finally, Achilles alienates the gods when he desecrates Hector’s body by dragging it behind his chariot and leaving it for birds of prey. It is only when Priam, Hector's father, visits his son’s murderer to ask for the return of his son’s body that Achilles begins to recognize a reality outside of himself and the need to curb his self-destructive impulses.

Clearly, Achilles demonstrates the tendency, as Clausewitz put it, for war to devolve towards “a complete, untrammeled, absolute manifestation of violence” untethered to achievable goals and interests. In contrast, Odysseus conceives the stratagem, the Trojan horse, that allows the Greeks to conquer Troy, outwits the powerful one-eyed Cyclops, and disguises himself as a ragged beggar to plot the successful murders of his wife’s many suitors in Ithaca at the end of the Odyssey. Odysseus, unlike Achilles, is able to control the temptation to satisfy the short-term impulse for violence and revenge in favor of a calculated plan of action. This is not to say that Odysseus avoids combat; when he finds himself alone and outnumbered by Trojans, he refuses flight since “the man who wants to make his mark in war must stand his ground.” (11.484-85). But métis guides the actions of the Greeks’ most valuable warrior, though not their strongest one.  

Shakespeare: Two Cheers for Political Realism

Abraham Lincoln found much instruction in Shakespeare, his favorite writer, with whom he shared a sense of the importance of prudence in politics (as distinct from caution). In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare analyzes the dangers of well-meaning idealism, when the noble but naive Brutus believes that removing a potential tyrant by a preventive coup will allow for an easy transfer of power to senior government officials (shades of George W. Bush, the neocons and Iraq). Marc Anthony, who has Odysseus’ shrewdness, but not his self-control outwits Brutus, however. Both Brutus and Anthony are superseded by the ruthless and cold but competent Octavius Caesar, who ushers in the dictatorship that Brutus had hoped to prevent. Brutus’s well-meaning idealism helps bring about a civil war; his scruples about killing Anthony and about the need to raise money for his army ensure his defeat. Brutus exemplifies the realist dictum: while a just man in private life is admirable, a just man in public life may bring about catastrophe.

Shakespeare’s fundamental prudence is also reflected in the crowd scenes in Julius Caesar. Brutus initially convinces the Roman crowd of the righteousness of his cause; Anthony then turns the crowd against Brutus and the conspirators. The enraged crowd subsequently comes across the hapless Cinna, the poet, in the street, and decides to murder him even after they discover that he is not Cinna, the conspirator, their intended target.

The ultimate expression of Shakespeare’s meditation on leadership is Henry V, one of the most commanding and competent leaders in all literature. Henry inspires his English soldiers with excellent war rhetoric, makes snap decisions in the heat of battle, and mixes threats and accommodations to achieve success. Outside, the French town Harfleur, he uses ferocious rhetoric to bully its inhabitants into surrender:

“What is’t to me, when you yourselves are cause, if your pure maidens fall into the hand

Of hot and forcing violations...Your fathers taken by the silver beards, and their most reverend heads dashed to the walls.” (Act 3, Scene 3).

At the same time, he tells his men to treat French civilians respectfully once they surrender or when marching through their countryside: “We give express charge that in our marches through the country there be nothing compelled from the villages, nothing taken but paid for; none of the French upbraided or abused in disdainful language; for when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.” (Act 3, Scene 6). Henry acts in a humane fashion (shades of counterinsurgency doctrine) not from a humanitarian impulse, but because it serves his utilitarian purposes.

But Henry resorts to ruthlessness more quickly than one can say Niccolo Machiavelli if it serves his purposes. When the outcome of the battle of Agincourt becomes more uncertain, he orders all French prisoners to be executed immediately lest they escape or be liberated (Act 4, Scene 6). When his old friend Bardolph is caught stealing a modest church tablet of the crucifixion during a march through the French countryside, Henry does not hesitate to have him hanged to set an example: “We would have all such offenders so cut off.” (Act 3, Scene 6).  He also turns against his friend, Falstaff, once he becomes King to underscore his new found maturity: “I know thee not old man” (a reference to Peter’s denial of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, Matthew 26:74).