I have sometimes bemoaned the passing of the statesman in modern society. What I have often lacked, however, is a clear articulation of what separates a statesman from, say, the politician.

My difficulty was resolved recently, however, when I came across this description from Shakespeare as Political Thinker, an excellent collection of essays published by the incomparable ISI Books. John Alvis writes:

A third dimension of the soul becomes evident when we consider a grouping of figures who strive primarily neither for the bodily ends of the commoner nor for the honor desired by aristocrat. Characters such as the Princess of Acquitaine, Theseus, Edgar, Kent, Cordelia, and the chastened Lear, Duke Vincentio, Belmont’s Portia, Viola, Hermione, and Prospero all appear to live for the sake of guiding others to conduct consistent with an elevated understanding of human nature which only the guides themselves possess. Most of these sponsos of the commonweal voice convictions concerning the ultimate character of human being. They seem to be more reflective than Shakespeare’s other personages. Whether they possess official political power or not, these prudent men and women suggest Shakespeare’s view of the statesman. They represent the soul in its activity as an ordering principle embodying the powers of speculative and practical intelligence which offer at least the possibility of governing the soul in its two other aspects of unreflective sentiment and self-conscious but insufficiently reflective spiritedness. The superior person understands the other orders and possesses an impressive degree of self-knowledge, whereas the other orders understand neither him nor themselves. Because these natural aristocrats of the spirit are depicted always in their relatedness to others as lovers, children, parents, liegemen, or rulers, one hesitates to identify their common excellence simply with contemplative intelligence. Hamlet, Prospero, and Vincentio give themselves on occasion to solitary study, but from the difference in their plight it appears that statesmanship requires putting speculative virtue in the service of practical ends.

There is a lot worth unpacking in the description. It is clear, however, that individuals who measure up to that standard of statesmanship today are few and far between. Though I am not a Democrat, I might welcome a Democrat statesman who had the sort of robust understanding of human nature needed to govern with excellence. Even though we might disagree in the end, he would at least be a political opponent that would move the conversation to a higher plane.

However, on both sides of the aisle we seem to be left with mere–and I use the adjective deliberately–politicians. Such individuals are interested in pushing an agenda, rather than developing the sort of speculative virtue that is required for greatness. In addition, they seem to pursue political power, rather than the ability to guide others to more virtuous conduct. The focus matters. The ability to guide conduct demands the ability not only to convince, but to move–it demands excellence in the now lost art of rhetoric.

Exit question: what social forces lead to the death of the statesman, and (how) can they be reversed?

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. […] The play Mr Miller didn’t write: Death of the Statesman. […]


  2. […] If anything, what previous generations of conservatism had and what we currently lack is statesmen.  Buckley, in fact, may have been the last conservative statesman standing (though I have hope for someone like Rick Santorum).  Republicans have turned their focus toward practical ends while neglecting the theoretical virtue that ought undergird their prescriptions (hence the trend of pundits rejecting graduate school).  Hence, when Rod concludes “More ISI, less CPAC,” he has identified the core of the problem exactly right.  If conservatives wish to recover their ideological mooring and discover plausible solutions to new challenges, they would do well to recover the robust understanding of human nature that they once founded their politicizing upon (see Kirk, Russell). 1f54 […]


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