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Uneasy Lies the Head That Wears a Crown

By Nicholas Mosvick

In his first annual address in January 1790, George Washington highlighted one of the most consequential themes in American politics: the necessity of a knowledgeable, virtuous people. As Washington stated

Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of publick happiness. . .To the security of a free Constitution it contributes in various ways: By convincing those who are entrusted with the publick administration, that every valuable end of government is best answered by the enlightened confidence of the people: And by teaching the people themselves to know, and to value their own rights; to discern and provide against invasions of them; to distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority; between burthens proceeding from a disregard to their convenience, and those resulting from the inevitable exigencies of society; to discriminate the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness, cherishing the first, avoiding the last, and uniting a speedy, but temperate vigilance against encroachments, with an inviolable respect to the laws.

Answering Washington’s call for civic education, Johnny Burtka IV, president and CEO of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), has published   Gateway to Statesmanship as a guide to leadership in the modern age. In particular, Burtka seeks to revive the “Mirrors-for-Princes” literary tradition, which stretches back to antiquity. As Burtka describes it: “The genre's essential writings—usually short books or letters—are described as mirrors because they serve as self-help manuals for political leaders to examine their conduct and appearances.” Burtka’s hope is to remind current leaders and entrepreneurs that past generations thought deeply about the qualities required for political and social leadership. 

In a period of destabilization, of the loss of community, faith, and even a shared orthodoxy of tradition and ontology, such a revival has great appeal. Burtka argues that Americans have lost faith in their leaders and elites as a result of their disastrous failures, from the War on Terror to the pandemic lockdowns, and their naive attempts to create “heaven on earth.” Thus, he suggests, a new generation of Americans need the guidance of time-tested principles of leadership in order to renew the nation. 

Burtka gives a four-point process by which the resurrection of the “Mirrors-for-Princes” tradition would renew wise leadership: reminding ourselves of the virtues and education required for political leadership, make us widely read in the tradition, allows us to identify the core principles that are applicable now, and allow for creation of a unique American tradition. 

Of the ancient Greeks and Romans in the tradition, Burtka selects Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus, Aristotle’s Nicodemian Ethics, and Cicero’s On Moral Duties. Taken together, he suggests these texts  teach  wisdom, piety and restraint, benevolence, the life of virtue, and the value of prudential realism. Burtka adds great Eastern thinkers as well, including the 3rd century Indian scholar Kautilya and the Chinese Zhou Dynasty legalist Han Fei as examples of pragmatic leadership in political theory, economics, and military strategy. In the Biblical tradition, Burtka includes selections concerning Esther, Daniel, and Judith from the Old Testament, Eusebius’ Life of Constantine, Saint Augustine’s City of God, and Saint Thomas Aquinas On Kingship. For premodern Christians, the primary duty of rulers was to restrain the lawless, to protect God’s people from invasion, schism, and heresy, and to support the Church in its worldly mission. Finally, Burtka asserts that the Renaissance period was the “pinnacle of the mirrors-for-princes tradition in the West,” because scholars rediscovered classic Roman texts like Cicero. From this period, Burtka includes excerpts from Machiavelli’s The Prince, Erasmus’ Education of a Christian Prince, and Saint Thomas More’s Utopia, while also including “modern” thinkers including George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Charles de Gaulle. 

Burtka does a service in reminding readers of the beauty and insight contained in these texts. At the same time, his emphasis on premodern sources raises questions of how exactly such works fit within the American republican tradition. A “mirror for princes” assumes that there are princes to be found. But “prince” is not a role specified by the U.S. Constitution.

By including George Washington’s “Farewell Address” as a “modern” example of the “mirrors-for-princes” tradition, Burtka suggests that the model applies to the presidency. This assumption requires further investigation. The degree to which the presidency is modeled after the British monarchy is a critical question among scholars of the Constitution and founding. True, the term prince is derived from the Latin “princeps,”which means something like “leader,”not necessarily a successor to the throne. Despite the inspiration that the Founder took from Roman models, though, it’s still important to consider the ways they tried to distance themselves from contemporary models of hereditary nobility.

Further, the book does not reckon with the changes in executive power over the two or more centuries since the“mirrors-for-princes” school went into decline.  Today’s presidents are arguably more “royal” in their authority and powers than in the early republic. This development may make such education in virtue even more necessary. Yet the paradox is that if the growth and centralization of executive power  makes the ideal of statesmanship  more necessary, the abandonment of hereditary authority makes simultaneously more unlikely. The political rewards for statesmanship are lower than the rewards for partisan grandstanding. 

A related question is why the “mirrors for princes'' tradition fell apart in the first place. Burtka contends that this happened because our current education system is “guilty of presentism, prioritizing secondary literature over primary sources, and social sciences over moral philosophy and theology.” This may be a fine understanding of the pedagogical defects of today, but it is unsatisfying as a historical explanation. 

Even in the 18th century, David Hume wrote that, “the mere name of king commands little respect; and to talk of a king as God’s vice-regent on earth, or to give him any of these magnificent titles which formerly dazzled mankind, would but excite laughter in everyone.” Washington, John Adams, and other founders hoped to replace the decayed nobility of Europe with a “natural” aristocracy of talent and virtue. But it didn’t turn out quite that way. As Gordon Wood put it in Radicalism of the American Republic, “In the end the disintegration of the traditional eighteenth-century monarchical society of paternal and dependent relationships prepared the way for the emergence of the liberal, democratic, capitalistic world of the early nineteenth century.” In this world, it made little sense to talk about princes, given the myriad ways that the “Age of the Republican Revolution” upended the primary assumptions and practices of monarchical society. 

The tension that emerged in the 19th century is that while both Republicans and Whigs thought important public offices should be filled with the “better sort” of citizens, the democratic age eroded such traditional categories. In principle, the  “mirror-for-princes” school could educate the sort of disinterested, virtuous leaders that classical republicans desired. But it seems very possible that the rise of mass democracy eroded authority so greatly as to make a revival impossible. 

More commentary would help make the case that we can still derive practical use from the mirrors for princes, rather than simply admiring them as expressions of a bygone age. Burtka’s introduction lays out his essential purposes. But from there, there is little guidance that places individual writers in the tradition. For instance, Burtka marks the delineation between medieval and Renaissance writers with Christine de Pizzan and Macheivelli. One wonders why the themes of Pizan’s treatise, “The Book of the Body Politic”—”liberality” and “humane” treatment by rulers combined with a proper respect for the need for punishment—aren’t connected to Erasmus’ “The Education of a Christian Prince.”  

Comparing these writers would help address the particular challenges of leadership in the current era. Daniel McCarthy reminds us of the crucial distinction between the ideology of liberalism and the virtue of liberality, something that Pizan helps us to examine. Erasmus addresses the problem of fair treatment under the law, noting that, “Equity does not lie in giving everyone the same reward, the same rights, the same honor; as a matter of fact, that is sometimes a mark of the greatest unfairness.” Meanwhile, in a time in which the meaning and place of “liberal” is in dispute, Pizan’s definition gives us pause. For Pizan, the good liberal prince loved  “the universal good more than his own.” This “liberality”  involves generosity, disinterestedness, and selflessness. Rather than a fixed set of political or moral principles, it is a dispositional sentiment that was meant to be reflective of divine virtue.

Despite the crisis of higher education, there are still pockets of “classical education” or “great books” teaching. The desire to resurrect traditional virtue remains a time-honored project of American conservatives. Much can be learned from the wisdom of the ancients and our most virtuous modern leaders, reminding readers of the value of gratitude. Whether or not that project can lead to a broader reconceptualization and spread of “mirrors for princes” is harder to foresee. American republicanism was simultaneously a revolutionary upheaval of the political, social, and economic traditions and a conservative project of English and classical rights, institutions, and practices. Although we can learn from princes, coming to grips with America means confronting our new democratic selves.

Nicholas Mosvick is the Buckley Legacy Project manager at National Review Institute.


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