Professor to Prime Minister to Professor @M_Ignatieff reflects on political action and theory.
I found myself thinking that much of the political theory that students are assigned in classes the world over was written not by those who succeeded in politics but by those who failed. Cicero … Machiavelli … Edmund Burke … James Madison … Alexis de Tocqueville … John Stuart Mill … Max Weber ….
Why theoretical acumen is so frequently combined with political failure throws light on what is distinctive about a talent for politics. The candour, rigour, willingness to follow a thought wherever it leads, the penetrating search for originality — all these are virtues in theoretical pursuits but active liabilities in politics, where discretion and dissimulation are essential for success. This would suggest that these theorists failed because they couldn’t keep their mouths shut when flattery or partisan discipline required it of them.
Equally, however, theorists may have lacked those supreme virtues that separate successful politicians from failures: adaptability, cunning, rapid-fire recognition of Fortuna, the keen intuition that a situation has changed and that what was true once is no longer so, together with the noble capacity to lead, to charm and to inspire.
Thinkers too often disparage men of action in ways that do them no credit. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes reportedly said of Franklin Roosevelt that he had a second-class intelligence but a first-class temperament. Holmes was being condescending. Roosevelt himself was happy to admit that he had no theory of politics, other than being a Christian and a Democrat, but no theorist could have created the modern liberal state and revived his people’s faith in politics in the pit of the Depression.
Those with a gift for action, for their part, often express contempt for those whose gifts are more reflective. Men of action like to say, “Those who can, do, those who can’t, teach,” forgetting that those who teach get to write the history books.
Michael Ignatieff | Defeat invalidated me (book excerpt) | Sept. 21, 2013 | Toronto Star at http://www.thestar.com/news/insight/2013/09/20/ignatieff_book_excerpt_defeat_invalidated_me.html.