by Charles Hill
What a stimulating journey through the greatest works of literature, interpreted with a mind towards statecraft. Hill wants us to change—that is, to return—the basis of politics from “science”, p-values, and data manipulation to art, literature, close reading. Unlike most political “scientists”, Hill understands that statecraft is unlikely to benefit solely from quantitative insight: “…the world should recognize high political ideas and actions of statecraft as aspects of the human condition that are fully within the scope of literary genius, and ones that great writers have consistently explored in important ways.”
Hill makes you hungry to (re-)read these books (an annotated bibliography is given), which show not only a history of civilization, but the nature of the epic hero (and his inevitable visit to the Underworld, where he learns his true purpose). Embedded in the greatest poems and novels is a complete analyses of political thought and how this has changed through time. The word is “changed” and not “progressed.” Too many intellectuals have fallen in passionate love with theory—and have damned reality—for all change to been seen as progress.
“Socrates, in Plato’s Republic, intellectually attempts to design a new polis. The result is repulsive, perhaps an ironic demonstration of how pure intellect in it search for political utopia can produce a tyranny that would drain humanity of its capacity for virtue.” Later, he argues most readers have taken Republic seriously when it was meant ironically. “Socrates’ arguments for the Kallipolis are delivered with tongue firmly in cheek, as one set of arguments after another leads his circle to fanatical results, such as the abolition of the family, women being held in common by men, and the eradication—Khmer Rouge style—of everyone over the age of ten.” Reads like a communist primer, no?
Not just Plato, but Rousseau was, and still is, believed to have been not just sane, but sincere. “Here were the foundations for the idea, later developed not in witty insouciance but all grim earnestness, that all of Western civilization is an oppressive fraud and that some ‘Maximum Leader’ or ‘Great Helmsman’ will be needed to steer The People toward utopia on earth. And those who disagree? Well, as Rousseau writes in his Social Contract, they ‘will be forced to be free.'”
It is thus not surprising to recall that all the great socialist revolutions, from France to Cuba, were all led by intellectuals infatuated with their self-created “Platonic” theories. Tens of millions of souls were forced forever to be free.
Many books are investigated. Just one, Joseph’s Conrad The Secret Agent (1907), is as relevant now as when first published. In it we learn of
the label and concept of terrorist; a commitment to and infatuation with unspeakable acts and mass murder; a suicide bomber with his fingers always on the detonating device in his clothing that will blow him and everyone around him to bloody bits; the quiet, “nice,” ordinary lives lived by those involved in terror; the blundering, arrogant officials who are both the killers’ targets and their pursuers; the elite who fawn over terrorists who would obliterate them; the press, which creates and imposes a reality of its own, reporting on events while taking a staring role in them; and above all the vulnerability of civilization, along with its production of civilized savages bent on exploiting its flaws.
Among the many statesmen, we meet the infamous Talleyrand, the man who quipped that diplomacy was a branch of theology, became bishop under Louis XVI, then adopted the guise of a revolutionary who proposed confiscating Church property, all while penning the patently false Article 6 of the Rights on Man and the Citizen: “each is equal to all others.” But no man’s political sense was more acute. He fled the guillotine, became a successful land speculator in America, returned to France and worked for Napoleon as his foreign minister, until the Little Corporal’s fortunes soured, and then Talleyrand plotted to restore the Bourbons. He finally, at the Congress of Vienna, redrew the map of Europe, and perhaps had a death-bed re-conversion.
Bucking the modern trend, Hill inserts himself into the book only rarely, but when he does it to hilarious effect. In one instance as a Foreign Service officer, he is present at a Harvard Faculty Club dinner in 1970, hosting Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
The intellectuals were in a jolly, self-satisfied mood, for the American war in Vietnam was going badly. The “New Left” had arrived on American campuses—new because the student left had turned to Mao’s China and Red Guards as models…Mao’s Cultural Revolution was inspiring student activism in Europe and the United States…
A professor of sociology helpfully wanted to clear something up at the start of the dinner. There had been some talk that perhaps the prime minister was not entirely opposed to the war in Vietnam. “But I’m sure that’s a gross canard, is it not?” the professor asked rhetorically, or perhaps suggestively.
Lee was having none of it. He lit into them with blistering rhetoric: “…If the U.S. were not fighting in Vietnam, Singapore would be gone by now!”…The professors called an early end to the evening.
Three years later, he took one of the first “delegations” of Americans to Red China:
I escorted a group of seventeen teenagers, most of them black, from Chicago’s inner city…[China accepted them] apparently believing they would be “urban revolutionaries” and pro-communist in spirit.
They were not. They were American high school kids, and the overarching interest they had in the People’s Republic of China was to find a basketball court…Suddenly, in Shanghai one evening, we were informed that it was time to play basketball…We were taken to a big outdoor stadium and led to the basketball playing surface. On all four sides of the court, every seat was filled. Thousands of spectators were packed together, quietly waiting for us…
We took the court against the Shanghai no. 3 Tramways team…The American girls instantly formed themselves into a cheerleading squad and cavorted to the center of the court to shout at the crowd, doing a brightly choreographed routine as they did:
They ain’t no flies on us!
They ain’t no flies on us!
They may be one or two on you! [all point to the Chinese crowd]
But they ain’t no flies on us!
We won the game.
Hill leaves us with the thoughts of Henry Kissinger, of whom Hill is a big fan, who warns of the dangers of impatience, of summarized but un-assimilated facts, of the weakness of computerized instant recall—what Richard Weaver called the substitution of sensation for reflections—which provides, “no context, no motive.” From that comes the truth, forgotten by nearly all in our ultra modern age, that “Information is not knowledge.”