The Case for Greatness

The Case for Greatness: Honorable Ambition and Its Critics

Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    The Case for Greatness
    Book Description:

    The Case for Greatnessis a spirited look at political ambition, good and bad, with particular attention to honorable ambition. Robert Faulkner contends that too many modern accounts of leadership slight such things as determination to excel, good judgment, justice, and a sense of honor-the very qualities that distinguish the truly great. And here he offers an attempt to recover "a reasonable understanding of excellence," that which distinguishes a Franklin D. Roosevelt and a Lincoln from lesser leaders.

    Faulkner finds the most telling diagnoses in antiquity and examines closely Aristotle's great-souled man, two accounts of the spectacular and dubious Athenian politician Alcibiades, and the life of the imperial conqueror Cyrus the Great. There results a complex and compelling picture of greatness and its problems. Faulkner dissects military and imperial ambition, the art of leadership, and, in the later example of George Washington, ambition in the service of popular self-government. He also addresses modern indictments of even the best forms of political greatness, whether in the critical thinking of Hobbes, the idealism of Kant, the relativism and brutalism of Nietzsche, or the egalitarianism of Rawls and Arendt. He shows how modern philosophy came to doubt and indeed disdain even the best forms of ambition. This book is a nuanced defense of admirable ambition and the honor-seeking life, as well as an irresistible invitation to apply these terms to our own times and leaders.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15027-8
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. CHAPTER ONE Introduction: Honorable Statesmen and Obscuring Theories
    (pp. 1-15)

    This is a book about great political ambition and especially its good version, honorable or statesmanlike ambition. Statesmanlike ambition is well known, of course, unless one could maintain that Nelson Mandela or Winston Churchill does not differ from the tyrant Joseph Stalin or the dangerous mediocrity Neville Chamberlain. Mandela and Churchill appeared larger and better than life to many of their free contemporaries. They attract as a matter of course attentive political historians who size up their efforts at defending, reforming, and founding a free country. But what seems obvious to the public-spirited is not so obvious to many scholars,...

  5. CHAPTER TWO The Gentleman-Statesman: Aristotle’s (Complicated) Great-Souled Man
    (pp. 16-57)

    Greatness, resolve, a wish for the public’s esteem, but governed by duty, by public duty in particular, and by a height of soul that would not stoop. So Washington’s “magnanimity” appeared to his protégé Marshall and to others, Jeffersonian as well as Federalist, who knew the man at first hand. Washington seems to have been great as well as good, and good as well as great. Whereas Xenophon’s Cyrus turns justice, honor, and duty into instruments of imperial ambition, Washington’s ambition served justice, honor, and duty. Whereas Thucydides’ Alcibiades ranges beyond his country’s laws and limits toward glorious victories and...

  6. CHAPTER THREE Imperial Ambition in Free Politics: The Problem of Thucydides’ Alcibiades
    (pp. 58-80)

    What can that questionable Athenian Alcibiades teach us about grand ambition? To begin with, he shows it in a more unvarnished form. Alcibiades exhibits unbounded ambition, unbounded, at least, by the restraints moral and political of an Aristotelian gentleman-statesman. Then, too, Alcibiades’ career is revealing as to the problems such grand ambition poses for free countries. For Xenophon’s Cyrus, undermining the Persian republic is just the start; he occupied himself with acquiring an imperial monarchy. Alcibiades may exhibit a rather similar passion—he took Cyrus the great as a model, according to Plato—but he is throughout his tumultuous career...

  7. CHAPTER FOUR The Soul of Grand Ambition: Alcibiades Cross-Examined by Socrates
    (pp. 81-126)

    This chapter inquires further into the psychic makeup, the soul, of the Alcibiades type just discussed. The discussion again revolves about Alcibiades himself, now with this excuse: he was examined at length by a very great psychologist, Plato.

    Two little dialogues namedAlcibiades,traditionally attributed to Plato, consider directly and even dramatically the great political soul. We are shown the master-interrogator Socrates twice confronting a masterful man who would rule the world and who did seek to carry out spectacularly imperial designs. The pictures are from two periods, as I remarked before. The firstAlcibiadesexamines a promising youth in...

  8. CHAPTER FIVE Imperial Grandeur and Imperial Hollowness: Xenophon’s Cyrus the Great
    (pp. 127-176)

    Xenophon’sEducation of Cyrusexamines a legendary political general whose imperial quest, unlike Alcibiades’, proceeded without failures or mistakes, strategic or otherwise. The Cyrus in question is Cyrus the Great, who founded the Persian empire in the middle of the sixth century BC (about a hundred and fifty years before Xenophon composed his work). But Xenophon’s account is surely less history than model. It treats Cyrus’s achievement as politically paradigmatic and revamps the story accordingly. It shows that a certain enduring rule is possible and in particular one superior man’s enduring rule over very many people, cities, and nations. Xenophon...

  9. CHAPTER SIX Obscuring the Truly Great: Washington and Modern Theories of Fame
    (pp. 177-197)

    The very notion of gentleman-statesman is now of course much doubted, whatever Aristotle, in his far-off wisdom, might have said. This chapter and the final two address such doubts. In the final chapters I confront the sweeping modern skepticism as to both parts of the formula, both the allegedly superior character and the allegedly superior political wisdom. This chapter is less theoretical, deals with less radical theories, and is more biographical-historical. I mean to remind here that the gentleman-statesman is a familiar type still, although harder to see and appreciate in the shadows cast by our theories.

    My example is...

  10. CHAPTER SEVEN Honorable Greatness Denied (1): The Egalitarian Web
    (pp. 198-218)

    These last chapters turn to address the skeptics, especially the intellectual critics. There are many. While admiration for a Nelson Mandela, a Franklin D. Roosevelt, and a George Washington may arise almost naturally in decent citizens and appreciative historians, many present-day intellectuals and academics would challenge such estimates in principle. This chapter and the next examine the principle, or, rather, several of the critical principles and their complicated origins. The egalitarianism and relativism of the present may seem compelling on their face, but they are also contradictory on their face. How defend equality as a principle when all principles are...

  11. CHAPTER EIGHT Honorable Greatness Denied (2): The Premises
    (pp. 219-242)

    How we got to the complicated doubts and paradoxical denials of a Rawls and an Arendt is itself a complicated as well as a disputed story. There is, nevertheless, an underlying dynamic of modern political theories at work. So I mean to outline with key examples. I sketch in turn a representative early modern critique of virtue and especially superior virtue (Hobbes’s), the leading attempt, in reaction, to recover morality by a teaching of equal dignity (Kant’s), and finally the explosive Nietzschean reaction against both Hobbesian bourgeois security and Kantian idealistic equality. It is this final reaction that has led...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 243-256)
  13. Index
    (pp. 257-264)