Saturday, October 16, 2010

Statesmanship and Literature - Some Food for Thought

My friend, Jeff Bryan, is a young Renaissance Man. A graduate of West Point, and veteran of two deployments to Iraq, he is currently studying at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Jeff recently made me aware of a fascinating article that discusses the degree to which the relationship between literature and statesmanship has devolved in the past generations. In the August edition of Foreign Policy, Charles Hill writes convincingly of the important role that literature has played over the centuries in shaping the way that statesmen view the world and one another. Hill is diplomat in residence at Yale University.

Let me share a few paragraphs to whet your appetite to read the article in its entirety.

"Statesmen have looked at literature not only as another source of strategic insight but as a unique intellectual endeavor. Of all the arts and sciences, only literature is substantially and methodologically unbounded. Literature's freedom to explore endless or exquisite details, portray the thoughts of imaginary characters, and dramatize large themes through intricate plots brings it closest to the reality of "how the world really works." This dimension of fiction is indispensable to the strategist who cannot, by the nature of the craft, know all of the facts, considerations, and potential consequences of a situation at the time a decision must be made, ready or not. Literature lives in the realm grand strategy requires, beyond rational calculation, in acts of the imagination.

To be more specific about why literary insight is essential for statecraft, both endeavors are concerned with important questions that are only partly accessible to rational thought. Such matters as how a people begins to identify itself as a nation, the nature of trust between political actors or between a government and its people, how a nation commits itself to a more humane course of governance can't be understood without some "grasp of the ungraspable" emotional and moral weight they bear. A purely rational or technocratic approach is likely to lead one astray. A virtue of great literary works is that, while not slighting rational thought, they manage to convey the inchoate aspects of affairs within and between states to attentive readers."

I find that even in the business world and in the military, the most persuasive and articulate leaders are those who read broadly - not only in their own fields of specialization, but from the wider classical literary canon of great fiction. One final excerpt from Hill's article will give a brief tour of some the great thinkers who have valued literature as part of their arsenal of intellectual weaponry.

"Alexander the Great carried the Iliad with him on his eastern conquests, keeping it, Plutarch said, with a dagger under his pillow, "declaring that he esteemed it a perfect portable treasure of all military virtue and knowledge." Prior to sainthood, Thomas More read Roman poets and playwrights. Queen Elizabeth I read Cicero for rhetorical and legal strategy. Frederick the Great studied Homer's Odysseus as a model for princes. John Adams read Thucydides in Greek while being guided through the "labyrinth" of human nature by Swift, Shakespeare, and Cervantes. Abraham Lincoln slowly read through Whitman's Leaves of Grass and was changed by it. Gladstone, four times prime minister under Queen Victoria, wrote volumes of scholarly commentary on Homer and produced vivid translations -- the best kind of close reading -- of Horace's Odes. Lawrence of Arabia, who wrote himself into history as a fictional character leading Arab tribes in revolt against the Ottoman Turks, carried Malory's Morte d'Arthur, if not in his camel's saddlebags then in his head."

I commend to you the whole article:

Foreign Policy Article by Charles Hill

Thank you, Jeff, for making me aware of this fascinating article.


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