Novel Ideas

Statesmen once looked to great works of literature to help them understand the world. No longer.

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Getty Images

Late on the morning of February 21, 1972, I listened at my desk in the U.S. Embassy Saigon as an Armed Forces Radio announced the arrival of President Richard Nixon in Beijing. I had been a Foreign Service "China watcher" through the horrendous years of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, when Chairman Mao sent thousands of young Red Guards out to burn books and put an end to China’s traditional culture. For more than two decades, American strategists considered themselves engaged in a colossal struggle against revolutionary communism, an ideology bent on destroying and replacing the established international state system of world order. Now here were Nixon and his chief advisor, Henry Kissinger, presenting themselves to the "Great Helmsman" of the People’s Republic of China.

In the manner of dictators, Mao suddenly summoned the two Americans to his private residence in the sequestered Chungnanhai compound next to the Forbidden City. Kissinger later described Mao’s study in his memoirs: "Manuscripts lined bookshelves along every wall; books covered the table and the floor, it looked more like the retreat of a scholar than the audience room of the all-powerful leader of the world’s most populous nation." The few unfrequented bookshops left in China offered little else but the writings of Mao and Marx and Lenin. But here in his lair, Mao had hoarded all the great texts his heart desired. He knew them well, and marked them up. ("If you don’t put your pen in action, it cannot really be considered reading," he had said.) The Outlaws of the Marsh (or The Water Margin), a tale of bandits in rebellion against oppressive lords, inspired him, and classical Chinese poetry too, much of which concerns matters of war and statecraft; Mao inflicted his own considerable poetic output on the masses.

But what are we to make of Mao’s love for the huge 18th-century novel The Dream of the Red Chamber, which he boasted of having read five times? What are dictators, generals, and strategists looking for in the books they keep around them or carry with them? Certainly Mao was not made a better person by his extensive reading in classic texts. Inhumane leaders have made use of humane letters; the Nazis cultivated the arts. But admirable underlying principles of statecraft can be found in nearly all classic texts. Literary works address the conundrums of statecraft in ways that may be used for good or ill by people in power.

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.

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.

In short, literature shows its relationship with statecraft to be reciprocal. Literature informs leaders whose actions may later become the stuff of literature. Imperfection — the conflicts, stratagems, and surprises of world affairs — can convey an ineffable, transcendent sense of things. Clausewitz called it the coup d’oeil: an integration of experience, observation, and imagination that "constructs a whole of the fragments that the eye can see." Imprinting it "like a picture, like a map, upon the brain." The approach is like a poet’s, involving the quick recognition of a truth that the mind would ordinarily miss, or would perceive only after long study and reflection. Oswald Spengler, at the end of The Decline of the West, a kind of tome-poem, praises something similar, the sense possessed by a judge of "horseflesh." A statesman requires such a sense, but in every category of life literature can capture the multifarious whole.

Sadly literature, once paramount as a way of knowing, was evicted from its place in the pantheon of the arts by popular cultures of entertainment sometime in the late mid-20th century, and statecraft has suffered from the loss. Today, both the state order and literature are under assault. But statesmen should respect literature as a neglected field of knowledge and a ballast for hard times. The
y should reach for works that give context to their political challenges and compensate for their personal weaknesses. George W. Bush, for example, would have benefited from reading Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, which shows just how many disparate elements — rhetoric, religion, chance happenings (Hurricane Katrina, for example), personnel, the "friction of battle" — conspire to propel or punish statesmen at a time of war.

The current U.S. president, by contrast, should look into Tocqueville and Whitman. Barack Obama has an inclination to step back from America’s long-standing role in promoting democracy. Those authors would show him precisely why that’s a big mistake.

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