A review of The Case for Greatness: Honorable Ambition and Its Critics, by Rober Faulkner

On the dust jacket of this slim, elegant volume, Yale University Press has reproduced "Phaeton," an engraving from Hendrik Goltzius's The Four Disgracers, depicting the fall of a legendary Greek hero who attempted to drive the chariot of the sun and was struck down by a thunderbolt to prevent him from inadvertently setting the world on fire. The image is appropriate, for in this book Robert Faulkner pulls no punches. His aim is the defense of political greatness, but he takes very great care to display its dark side as well.

Faulkner, a professor of political science at Boston College, begins with common sense, and from it he never strays far. He observes that to deny the value of what he calls "honorable or statesmanlike ambition" one must be willing to suppose there is no substantive difference between the aims and accomplishments of Nelson Mandela, George Washington, and Winston Churchill on the one hand, and those of Idi Amin, Joseph Stalin, and Neville Chamberlain on the other. To make sense of what every man on the street instinctively knows and many an academic fiercely denies, he contends that we must reconsider the ruminations on the "great-souled man" (megalopsuchos) and on politics and virtue found in several ancient works: Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and Politics, Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War, the dialogues Plato devoted to the problem of Alcibiades, and Xenophon's Education of Cyrus. To the exploration of the pertinent themes within these works he devotes two-thirds of this volume.

Reading these chapters requires considerable patience, for Faulkner advances his argument less by laying it out in a straightforward fashion than by exploring the nooks and crannies of the various texts he is examining. To grasp fully what he is up to, one must re-read Aristotle, Thucydides, Plato, and Xenophon and then re-read them again alongside the related chapters of Faulkner's work. As this may suggest, one could easily build a course around the book. Despite its title, it is anything but a lawyer's brief. It is a series of meditations and, after reading it, one cannot conclude that political greatness is always and everywhere an unmixed good. Faulkner never mentions Abraham Lincoln's well-known speech to the Young Men's Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois, but one can hear it playing in the background. The passion for superior accomplishment can be destructive as well as creative.

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Faulkner begins with Aristotle, and the chapter that he devotes to the Peripatetic is arguably the most important in the book. In it, he lays out the themes that he will later explore in greater depth in the chapters on Thucydides, Plato, and Xenophon. It is his conviction that Aristotle "sought to portray and foster" what Faulkner calls "the phenomenon of the gentleman-statesman or gentleman-ruler." It is also his conviction that Aristotle's account of greatness of soul is "no mere eulogy." The Peripatetic's aim was "an intellectual clarification and a political moderation and purification." To this end, although "Aristotle begins with an opinion admiring greatness of soul," he "ends with a surprising depreciation of that and of great politics generally."

Aristotle stands out because he refuses to reduce moral to political virtue—he "treats great ambition within a moral context that seems to stand on its own." But if he embraces "greatness of soul," he also considers it a double-edged sword—necessary to a polity in a time of trouble yet dangerous to it as well. There is, Faulkner insists, nothing utopian about Aristotle's outlook. He is perfectly aware that ordinary politics leaves little space for men of great soul, and he even suggests that an ostracism of the great-souled man may be demanded by what he calls "political justice"—by that form of rough justice that takes precedence everywhere as a consequence of the necessity to defend the political regime. Right must, in fact, be subordinated to regime, and out of self-defense any sort of polity will have to eliminate those within it whose capacities tower over it. Aristotle prefers safe regimes, such as middle-class republics, to great politics.

Even more to the point, Aristotle argues that greatness of soul is less impressive than greatness of mind, that empire is an impediment to the good life, that praxis is of doubtful value. The great-souled man falls short of the philosopher in self-knowledge. His claims need to be moderated.

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With this in mind, Faulkner asks that we consider Alcibiades, and he devotes one chapter to Thucydides' treatment of the would-be Athenian statesman and another to the enigmatic treatment given Pericles' ward in the two dialogues Plato named after him, in the Protagoras, and in the Symposium. Faulkner's initial theme is "the problems such grand ambition poses for free countries." He contends, as did Aristophanes in The Frogs, that Athens could not do with Alcibiades or without him, and he argues that, when driven into exile and given the opportunity to turn coat, Alcibiades proved to be indispensable to Sparta and Persia as well. Faulkner pays close attention to the dark side of Alcibiades' ambition—to his fury at those who have slighted him—and he outlines the manner in which his conduct contributed to great upheavals both at home and abroad. But he insists as well on Alcibiades' genius—on his unfailing grasp of the strategic situation, and on his capacity as a diplomat to get others to do Athens', Sparta's, and Persia's dirty work for them. This chapter is marred by an occasional error in fact and in historical judgment. Hermocrates was no more successful at Syracuse than Alcibiades at Athens, and Chios did not "turn oligarchic" before revolting: it had always been an oligarchy. But Faulkner's overall understanding is, nonetheless, sound, and he deploys it to lay the groundwork for a consideration of Plato'sAlcibiades I and Alcibiades II that is simply luminous.

In this chapter, Faulkner turns from Alcibiades' career to his soul, and he illuminates this by examining Socrates' repeated interrogation of the young man. In Faulkner's view, Alcibiades exemplifies the self-contradictions that bedevil political ambition unmoderated by a philosophical outlook and awareness. Above all, Alcibiades is defective in self-knowledge; and, by repeatedly bringing home to him his lack of this crucial quality, Socrates makes him profoundly ashamed. In the end, however, Alcibiades is insufficiently serious about the truth; in the end, he is governed by his passion for superiority and is, in that sense, out of control. Socrates may be able to moderate Alcibiades' moral outlook and to prevent him from succumbing to moral righteousness when angry. He may be able to put some distance between the young man and the punitive gods and heroes of Greek legend, but that is all.

If Alcibiades is warm (and the Greeks, both women and men, thought him hot), Faulkner suggests that the elder Cyrus, as represented by Xenophon in the Cyropaedia, is a very chilly character, worthy of the admiration that Machiavelli conferred on him. What most scholars read as a romantic novel written in praise of this largely fictive great-souled man and of everything for which he stands, Faulkner quite rightly treats as admonitory. There is no denying Cyrus' accomplishments, and Xenophon allows us to see how others profit from them. But he never lets us forget the price they pay in accepting servitude, and at the very end he deflates the entire enterprise by outlining its long-term consequences—moral and physical decadence—for all the peoples involved. On top of this, Cyrus' claim to have achieved happiness proves hollow. In Xenophon's depiction, the founder of the Achaemenid empire seems less interested in attaining happiness than in having a reputation for it. Like Alcibiades, he is driven, and in self-knowledge, he falls dismally short.

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Had Faulkner ended his book on this note, he would appear to have made a case against rather than for greatness. It is only when we get to the sixth chapter and his assessment of George Washington that we get more than a glimpse of what he calls "honorable ambition." This chapter begins with a consideration of Douglass Adair's celebrated essay "Fame and the Founding Fathers," which Faulkner evidently admires. But it is his conviction that Adair conflated the ancient with the early modern understanding, that his account might be adequate to Benjamin Franklin, but that it failed to do full justice to Washington in particular and arguably to others as well. To show what he means, Faulkner juxtaposes Adair's portrait of Washington, which is rooted in the thinking of Sir Francis Bacon, with that in the multi-volume biography by John Marshall, who repeatedly turns to Cicero's De officiis; and he demonstrates that time and again Washington was prepared to sacrifice fame and reputation for the purpose of doing the right thing. To make sense of Washington's character, Marshall had to speak such old-fashioned words as justice, duty, and the common good. Never, we are told, did Washington stoop to retain popular favor by deserving to lose it.

In his Auseinandersetzung with Adair, Faulk-ner is completely successful. In one particular, however, we are left in the dark. One would like to know what it was that instilled in Washington so strong a sense of justice, duty, and the common good. Was it his reading of Cicero? Did the Enlightenment play a role? And what about Christianity? Years ago, Karl Löwith wrote an essay asking whether there could be a Christian gentleman. In it, he acknowledged the phenomenon but denied its theoretical coherence. This would appear to be the view of James Bowman, whose book Honor: A History (2006) Faulkner briefly touches on in his introduction. It is striking that Faulkner mentions no ancient exemplars comparable to Washington. This may be an oversight, but I somehow doubt it. I found myself wishing that Faulkner had written more—about figures whom he mentions, such as Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, Kemal Atatürk, and Winston Churchill (who was once described as "Alcibiades with hats"), and about the paideía that distinguished them from the merely ambitious.

Instead of addressing this question, Faulkner devotes his final two chapters to the intellectual roots of the modern hostility to megalopsuchía. One chapter he devotes to John Rawls and Hannah Arendt; the other, to Thomas Hobbes, Immanuel Kant, and Friedrich Nietzsche. This may be useful, and Faulkner's treatment of Rawls and Arendt is both hilarious and just. But I wonder whether they are worth the bother. Who reads Rawls these days? Who ever read him through? That he once had a sterling reputation as a philosopher is testimony to the deficiencies of academic philosophy in the last century. Arendt retains a certain adolescent charm, to be sure, and her restatement of the standard critique of bourgeois society has bite. But, as Faulkner all too easily demonstrates, there is a great deal of ostentation in her work and next to no substance. Will anyone remember either of these two figures when Faulkner and I have gone to our Maker? I doubt it, and it seems to me that there is little point in flogging a dead horse.

Faulkner's treatment of Hobbes, Kant, and Nietzsche is of greater value. But, as he acknowledges, it is exceedingly brief. To do justice to the case against honorable ambition would have required a different and much longer book. To clarify how ambition comes to be honorable—that, I think, Faulkner could have done in greater depth, and perhaps, if we are fortunate, he will turn to this task. I, for one, would like to know more.