BMCR 2008.06.09

The Case for Greatness: Honorable Ambition and Its Critics

, The case for greatness : honorable ambition and its critics. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007. 1 online resource (xi, 264 pages). ISBN 9780300150278. $30.00.

Table of Contents

Robert Faulkner has written an ambitious book. He argues that is not easy to make a case for greatness today, partly due to our theories, and partly due to our practices. Faulkner believes that academic theories of ambition are hamstrung by cynicism and skepticism. These have roots in early modern political philosophy’s reduction of the longing for honor to selfish vainglory or domination, as well as in democratic theory’s insistence on equality, which views any longing for superiority with deep suspicion. The author also thinks that our practical experience of tyrants throughout the last century should make us wary of people with a passion for greatness. However, Faulkner argues that we need to think about greatness anyway. People with this passion arise and we must find a way to deal with them well. In addition sometimes we need the statesmanship of people like Washington, a Churchill, or a de Gaulle, despite the dangers they pose. So the book seeks to articulate the nature of the passion for greatness, as well as find a way to moderate it. Faulkner argues that this is best done by returning to the classical political philosophers and historians who “took seriously what is good and true as well as what is strong and great” (242). Consequently the book can be divided into two parts, one dealing with ancients and one with moderns. After an introduction limning the book’s concerns, the first part (Chapters 2 – 5) articulates the nature and problem of greatness as explored by Aristotle, Thucydides, and Xenophon. The second part (Chapters 6-8) turns to modern accounts, arguing that they fail to grasp the phenomenon accurately, deny it a deserved place, or exalt it in a way that throws moderation and restraint to the wind.

Faulkner begins by pointing out that ambition has various degrees of intensity and moves in a variety of directions. He is concerned not with run of the mill ambition, which reaches out for ordinary political office or fame. Ambition can also present itself on a “grand scale” (2). In addition, the ambition Faulkner is concerned with cannot be equated with charisma or prestige, which involve “dazzling or blinding people rather than obtaining the appraisal one deserves” (4). Genuinely great people reach out not just for power and renown. Someone with this kind of ambition seeks “the good opinion of his countrymen, and he wishes to be worthy of their good opinion” (3).

Chapter Two takes up the problem of ambition by examining Aristotle’s account of the great-souled man. The precise nature of greatness of soul is a vexed issue in contemporary revivals of classical political philosophy, and Faulkner surveys the territory as well as giving his own account. Faulkner claims that greatness of soul is the virtue with respect to the desire for great honors. Specifically, he goes on to describe magnanimity as the disposition that “brings intelligence to those who passionately want superiority” (28). The magnanimous man wants an accurate assessment of his worth. In Faulkner’s terms, “No greatness without goodness, then, and the goodness must be comprehensive” (35). But, the author insists, this makes the great-souled person a problem for free societies. He always wants more of what is due to him. In his greatness he wants to benefit others and thus show his superiority, as well as his independence (42). The problem is that “the great-souled seek a godlike kingship, but this … leads perhaps toward tyranny and especially empire” (54). On the one hand, this makes the magnanimous man “unwelcome” and “justly gotten rid of, at least according to a certain political justice” (49). On the other, this tendency reinforces a general trend in political life. Most people (and for Faulkner, “the people” means “the unphilosophic” [54]) equate politics with despotism. This means that their conception of justice will tend to tyranny and empire. The philosopher shows the great man the absurdity of this tendency by showing him the superiority of the philosophic life to the political life. “Politics is finally instrumental to the whole man in the true sense. It is instrumental to the philosopher, most obviously the political philosopher who can examine and correct the virtues and the regimes” (55). The effect of this is to moderate the great man’s ambition by fostering a respect for urbane, reasonable limits combined with respect for “the most thoughtful” (55). The chapter ends on a tragic note. The great-souled man is unlikely to achieve the superiority he wants and he is unlikely to find philosophy satisfactory as well (57). So it is not clear that a way forward has been assured, since nothing adequate to the great-souled man’s desires has come to light.

Faulkner turns next to a consideration of the Alcibiades as presented first in Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War and then in the Platonic dialogues. The problem Alcibiades poses for Thucydides is this: “While such a man wants a superiority that threatens a free order, it is also true that a free order may need his superior qualities and yet can hardly tolerate them” (58). He is the “outstanding general and political intellect of the war” (62). He is, thus, a crucial case study to fill out our own perspective on politics, which is sometimes limited to worrying about institutions, law, or state systems irrespective of who is in charge of them. Alcibiades wants superiority over his fellow citizens, but he genuinely loves Athens, and so wants its citizens not merely to recognize his worth but also to regard him warmly and with affection (66). At first, there seems to be a good fit between Alcibiades’ desire for the honor of his countrymen and their passion for empire. Yet in the end, Alcibiades’ drive for superiority leads him to seek his own glory over and against his city. So his passion for greatness is finally incompatible with Athens’ political freedom. Alcibiades “proved indigestible to every Athenian regime, democratic or oligarchic” (80). Thucydides’ final lesson about political life generally is that all free countries tend either to domination or submission. Quoting Thucydides, Faulkner says, “It is by nature for a human being to rule over all those who give way and, on the other hand, to resist the one who is over” (79). Political justice in this sense assures of us of a just return “neither in free politics nor in the clash of empire” (80).

Faulkner continues wrestling with the character of Alcibiades by turning to the Platonic dialogues of the same name. The problem here is that Alcibiades conceives of politics as a kind of shared community. Yet this cannot provide justice for Alcibiades, for he thinks it is fair for him to get superior honors (87). So his own conception of politics cannot satisfy his passion for greatness. There is a lot going on in this chapter, but Faulkner is particularly keen to explore religion. At the opening of Alcibiades II, Alcibiades is on his way to pray to the gods for success in the way of achieving his greatness. Socrates seeks to moderate Alcibiades by teaching him to respect the superior wisdom, not of the gods of the city, but rather of those he repeatedly calls “the knowers” or “the knowing” (for example, 89, 93, 121). He does this by teaching Alcibiades that the gods honor “outstanding human beings, especially the knowing ones” (89). “We find at the dialogue’s end a more attractive, amusing, and urbane Alcibiades, one more independent of Athenian religious names and custom, one who takes corresponding pride in his reasonableness” (90). This reformed Alcibiades “could be a guardian of philosophy, if not a philosopher” (90).

All this presupposes a reform in theology, in line with “what the wise understand the gods to be” (100). Unfortunately, Faulkner never tells us exactly what the wise understand the gods to be. What is clear is that the gods “favor intelligent men” (101). Yet there is an “antipathy” between “political loyalty” and “clear thinking” (103). This antipathy leads Alcibiades to doubt the gods of Athens he originally set out to pray to. In the end, there are “evil possibilities” in the Socratic teaching. Specifically, there is an absence of “moral strictures” (107). Socrates focuses on knowing what is truly good, but he “leaves out anything resembling exhortations to justice or common decency” (107). These possibilities are entertained because of the excesses that go along with “moral prescription” in a man like Alcibiades (108). Socrates moderates, rather than replaces or transforms Alcibiades’ morals (109). Alcibiades still believes in the gods at the end of the dialogue. But the way to look for divine help “as well as for noble and just things, is to be guided by the knowing man” (109). “A certain intellectual modesty, a corresponding deference to the knowing, is for the most part the secret of the good life and good politics” (121). People — i.e., those who do not know — need “humility before the knowing as to ultimate matters” (121). Socrates’ reformed theology advocates gods who are not rigorous or vengeful, excludes gods who can make bad human choices good, and claims that the gods look up to wise men (123).

The last section of the part of the book dealing with ancients is a chapter on Xenophon’s The Education of Cyrus. Here Xenophon asks whether someone like Cyrus can control political life through careful pursuit of the knowledge available in something like political science (127). Cyrus is an interesting figure in this regard because he is devoted not just to his own advantage, but to justice as well (151). He also wants his superiority to be known to everyone (161). Yet in this he is dependent on the opinion of others. But this means that Cyrus cannot become happy. “Is it reasonable for an extraordinary man to find happiness in the opinion of ordinary men, precisely those incapable of judging the deeds of a superior man? Why should a superior so defer to his inferiors?” (171). The contradiction at the heart of his life makes Cyrus insatiably active and power-hungry. He is thus closed to genuine thought. He knows how to succeed but is not thoughtful about what to succeed at. Had he been more in tune with the requirements of philosophy, Faulkner implies, Cyrus would have been “superior and happier” than he was (176).

The second part of the book takes up modern theories and exemplars of greatness. Faulkner begins with an exploration of John Marshall’s biography of George Washington. He is keen to distinguish current portraits of Washington’s motivations with Marshall’s account. Marshall saw that Washington was driven by a desire for justice and honorable conduct not by a selfish passion for superiority. Washington self-consciously modeled his public action not on Franklin’s utilitarian ethics but on ancient Roman virtue, as exemplified in texts like Cicero’s De Officiis. That is, his guiding principles were derived from an account of the duties of public officials in a free country. Cicero’s goal is to foster the kind of noble greatness that free politics require. Since this depends on a kind of “salutary philosophy,” Cicero taught free citizens to look up to philosophers and not “disdain or kill them” (190). The next chapter takes up contemporary political philosophers like John Rawls and Hannah Arendt. Despite the fact that free government sometimes finds “first-rate statesmen” “indispensable,” some democratic theorists argue that perfect justice demands perfect equality. Yet this denies the great their due. Finally, Faulkner concludes with modern political philosophy’s treatment of greatness. He examines Hobbes’ reinterpretation of the passion for greatness into a desire for “vain-glory” and domination. He looks at Kant’s denigration of ambition as a vice. He concludes with Nietzsche’s treatment of ambition as a species of will to power. It is disturbing that a book on greatness concludes with Nietzsche’s insistence that we examine noble greatness of soul in the wake of his assertion that god is dead. Nietzsche’s “proposals and diagnoses”, Faulkner says, should lead us to look to “more moderate accounts” (242). Faulkner ends by saying “To encourage such looking is what this book is about.”

In the end, one wonders if this book is primarily about the greatness of political ambition. It seems more like a case for the greatness of the “knower.” After all, the central argument is that only “the knowers” are able to moderate the great. Since both the people and the great need them, everyone ought to be “humble” and “deferential” before the knowers (121). Yet Faulkner never tells exactly what the knowers know about the “ultimate things” (121). In the absence of an explicit account, how are non-knowers supposed to know whether the knowers know anything worthwhile knowing? The closest Faulkner comes is to argue that they know that even the gods are “unknowing as to what is in general best” (121). “The problem of the political whole persists in the divine whole, which poets elaborate and to which political men look up and pray” (121). What would it mean to claim a superior status as a knower if one knows that the deepest truth is the irrationality of the cosmos and the gods?

In addition, Faulkner admits that there are “evil possibilities” in the knowers’ absence of moral standards (107). They seem to be antinomians since they see that conventional morality is instrumental. Are the knowers interested in moderating the great because they are protecting themselves (90)? Or are the knowers moderating the great to protect the people? The latter seems doubtful. Faulkner quotes with approval Leo Strauss’ argument that while the political man who loves honor attaches “ultimate importance” to human things, the philosopher who “loves the truth” is attached to “a particular type of human being, namely to actual or potential philosophers or to his friends” (250, note 16). For Faulkner there is a need to protect the knowers from the great. There is also need to protect the people from the great. Are these aspects of the same project or are they opposed? Faulkner consistently points out that a genuine common good is a chimera, mostly because it cannot comprehend the essential difference between the great and everyone else. If so, should we conclude that the knowers’ desire to protect themselves from the great is at odds with our own need to be protected from them?

These are particularly important questions to ask when thinking through the implications of Faulkner’s argument since we should have doubts about whether the knower will succeed in moderating the great. The knower’s moderating strategy is to show the great the impossibility of becoming genuinely satisfied by pursuing political forms of greatness. Consequently, the great are led to respect the knower, who then reminds them of their noble duty to sacrifice their interest in superiority to advance the political regime’s advantage. Yet what sense does it make for the great man to sacrifice his ambition for the political regime if the moderating strategy is to remind him that politics is flawed precisely because its account of justice will deny him his proper place? I may be wrong, but the heart of the argument seems to be that antinomian gnostics are responsible for moderating the great by getting them to respect their superior knowledge so that they can then convince them to deny their ambitions. It’s no wonder that the book ends with a meditation on Nietzsche’s frustration with the people’s resentment of the great. Can the knower hope to succeed in moderating a passion for superiority by showing the people ambitious for greatness even more clearly the bind Faulkner thinks they are in? The knowers’ dialogue with the great may lead to Nietzsche’s nihilism as often as it leads to Washington’s sense of duty. Yet if the knower is interested primarily in protecting the knowers, who will protect us from the great if the knower fails? Those who do not claim to be knowers have an interest in finding out whether an argument like this will tend to unleash the kind of fury it is trying to avoid. Thus, we have every interest in exploring alternative arguments, including whether the love of wisdom (as opposed to “knowing”) can hold out hope for a transformation of ambition that might serve what is common to all human beings — great and small.