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From the NS archive: Characters in history

25 September 1920: What makes a statesman?

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In this anonymously written article, our correspondent considers statesmen as “characters in history”, considering the legacies of some of the best-known “statesmen” – such as Napoleon and Caesar – to find what makes them great. “Never in history has there been so great an occasion for a great man,” they write – and yet “we no longer expect from a statesman generosity, clemency, fair dealing, or even as much truth”. In fractured times, the piece provides a retrospective of how we might have got to where we are now.


It was acutely remarked the other day that modern statesmen seem to be insensible of the fact that they are characters in history. If they realised this, they could hardly help acting better parts. Most men of distinction are extremely sensitive as regards the effect they produce on their audience, and the audience of a public man is history. No man wishes to be booed after he is dead. Men of noble character would rather be booed during their lifetime than by posterity. After all, the last word is with posterity. Posterity will last as long as the earth lasts. There is something of the eternal in its judgments.

Even the least ambitious of authors had rather be told that he would be read by ten men a hundred years hence than by a thousand men tomorrow. Nell Gwynn would probably be at least as delighted by the fact that we still remember her name and her heart of gold as by any of the successes she achieved during her lifetime. The great and the little alike have their aspirations after immortality. Leigh Hunt, as he lay dying, expressed the anxious hope that his work would live. Would he have been disappointed, we wonder, if he had foreseen that he would survive, not as a poet, but as a friend of poets – at once honoured and laughed at? Such disappointment would have been foolish. His figure has survived, if not his numbers. To be remembered, though with a sort of derisive affection by everyone who loves Shelley or Keats, or Byron or Dickens, is a fate of rare brilliance. To be remembered with any affection at all is, it may be, a fate worth living.

Some men are indifferent to the affection if only they will be remembered. But even they would not care to be remembered ingloriously. The cup of Napoleon’s failure would have been trebly bitter if he had thought that all posterity would sum him up as contemptuously as Mr Wells has done in The Outline of History. “He was,” writes Mr Wells, “of little significance to the broad onward movement of human affairs; he was an interruption, a reminder of latent evils, a thing like the bacterium of some pestilence.” One would choose to be remembered as anything rather than as a bacterium. Napoleon has certainly come down to us as a myth – if it is merely a myth – of a nobler sort. He is a lightning-flash, an eagle, a conqueror. He lives as a man who shook the world. This may be a feat comparable in utility to making the bell ring on a strength-testing machine on a bank holiday. But it is a feat that always inspires the mass of men with awe and wonder. From the dramatic point of view, it is a huge success.

Philosophers may despise the world-shaker as a scamp Jupiter, but the rest of us secretly envy him his scoundrelly thunderbolt. We admire power as a thing in itself. We give ourselves up to the powerful man, whether in war or politics or the football field. Even a bully, who assumes a power though he has it not, can enjoy a brief hour of glory. The hero is simply another name for the powerful man. True, we early learn to distinguish between one sort of power and another. Even on the football field we admire power of muscle most when it is allied to power of mind. The sportsman hero is not a mere stupid man of muscle. His power is power of courage and skill as well as of sinew. It is the same with the power of the soldier as hero. Ajax could never have become such a leader of men as Napoleon. It is by cunning even more than by physical force that men become conquerors, and so we make a more splendid myth of Odysseus than of Samson.

Still, it is the spectacle of victory that elates us, and a man can reap the reward of eternal fame merely by triumphing over his fellow-men and compelling the greatest number possible of them, for however short a time, to obey his will. There are no more famous men in history than Alexander, Caesar and Napoleon. Mr Wells, in the exasperation of a decent-minded Englishman, may tear to pieces the wreaths we go on placing on their ostentatious tombs. He may tell us scornfully of the “monstrous antics” of Alexander, and attempt to shock us by stories of his “drinking himself to death”. He may coldly assure us that Caesar was a “dissolute and extravagant young man”, that later on he was a “bald, middle-aged man”, who was afflicted by “a common man’s megalomania”, and that his “record of vulgar scheming for the tawdriest mockeries of personal worship is a silly and shameful record”. We may grant all this. We may even regard Caesar as a blasphemous fool for allowing his image, with the inscription, “To the Unconquerable God”, to be set up in a temple. But we cannot forget that this man, whether bald and blasphemous, shook the world. We may not love him, but we place him on his pedestal. He is one of the looming figures of history, and we can no more despise him than we despise Mont Blanc. We feel that Mont Blanc is a credit to Europe simply because of its great height, and we feel that Julius Caesar is a credit to history on simply non-moral grounds. It is as though the ultimate interpretation of history were aesthetic rather than ethical.

This does not of necessity mean that there will always be room in history for a Caesar or a Napoleon. It may well be that the day of such men is as dead as that of Jack the Giant-Killer. We cannot be sure that it is, but a plausible case may be made out for the contention that the world has been feeling its way for some generations past towards a new dispensation in politics. It is all very well to be Caesar in a world in which the idea of society, whether in the form of a nation or of a society of nations, is still in its infancy. In such a world men compete for spoils, and the greatest man is he who wins the greatest spoils. The ideal of world-power is the most attractive that can be conceived by a great man who is incapable of the ideal of world justice. It has been the dream of most of the great fighters – the triumph of a chosen people over the other peoples. That cannot easily ever again seem to be a tolerable ideal among civilised men. The Kaiser attempted to make it so, with the result that he cut as absurd a figure as Sir Edward Carson would cut in the armour of Richard Coeur de Lion. He was Don Quixote without the generosity – a malapropism out of a dead world. Whether it is due to the spread of political intelligence or to the spread of moral ideas, Caesar would be as much out-of-place in the modern world as President Wilson would have been at the court of Attila. Men still strive for power, for triumph, for glory, but these things can no longer be had by the man who cannot rise above the ideal of a scamp Jupiter. The pagan conqueror is as dead as the pagan gods. The world that has known Cromwell and Washington and Lincoln is struggling to produce a greater man than a Caesar. Christianity arose within a few years of Caesar's death, and the ideas associated with it have spread until, 19 centuries later, they have even begun to invade politics. We shall still have scamps, but they must be scamps with pious phrases. The idea of service, the idea of justice, the idea of liberty, equality and fraternity, have a place in our political vocabulary that would have bewildered the statesmen of even so recent a date as the Wars of the Roses. There may be more cant in the world as a result, but there is also more real feeling that man is not a beast of prey but a member of the family – that there is a common interest not only among the citizens of a nation but among the nations of the world.

Hence the statesman who would be well spoken of in history must discover a standard of nobility different from Caesar's. He may emulate Caesar’s courage, his magnanimity, his clemency, his lack of vindictiveness, but he would be a madman to emulate Caesar's dreams. Not that we think there is much danger of his doing the last of these. The danger of the modern statesman, it seems to us, is not the grandiose dream so much as the bewilderment of a mean mind able to snatch only a personal advantage from fresh opportunities. Never in history has there been so great an occasion for a great man. All the world was keyed up for what might be called a social and political revival. Whole nations committed themselves to the theory of equality of sacrifice, of the equal rights of the weak and the strong. We invented a new patriotism in which the interests of property were curbed in the name of the well-being of the atate. We hound ourselves with pledges to make not only England but practically the whole world a place fit for heroes to live in.

A statesman of genius had only to help us to redeem a tithe of our pledges in order to win a name of imperishable glory. It is difficult to realise how any statesman could resist the temptation to play so stunning a part. Vanity, if not honour, might have incited him to save the world. It is arguable that under this sign a statesman of great gifts could have won triumphs Caesar never knew. He would have had everything in his favour except the greed of the few. He would even have had the greed of the many. He had a world of new hopes, new faiths and healthy new fears not only to follow but to press him forward. He had under public control an unprecedentedly vast machineed of industry which could have been used for national ends. Never were such immense moral and material resources placed at the disposal of a public man. It was as though a man were given a hand that included the 13 trumps as well as the 14 points.

What could be thought of a man who, placed in such a position, immediately demanded a fresh deal on the ground that a red suit was trumps and that he didn’t like it? He will surely go down to posterity in the company of the man who hid his talent in a napkin. History, indeed, may take a comic view of the whole business, and, instead of angrily indicting Mr Bonar Law and Lord Birkenhead as examples of the mean minds that go ill with great empires may, laugh at them. But we who are their contemporaries cannot so easily laugh. It is bad enough to be shut out of Eden by angels with flaming swords. It is intolerable that the way should be barred by gentlemen’s gentlemen.

Was there ever such an achievement in history before – such a disaster not only of noble ideals but of the common standards of decent men? It has come to this, that we no longer expect from a statesman generosity, clemency, fair dealing, or even as much truth as we get from a servant in a divorce suit. Will history ignore the men who have dealt in this way with the greatest opportunities for good ever given to public men? Will it regard them more with wrath or with contempt? If they but realised that history will have the last word to say on them, and that history judges not by official apologies but by deeds, we cannot but half-believe that even now statesman would do something to make amends for the greatest betrayal of human hopes the world has known.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)