Today I had the privilege to lecture at the Patrick Henry College Teen Camp on Leadership and Vocation. Think: committed smart young Christians. They still have a ways to grow, but their initiative, commitment to sound principles, and convictions show much promise. I was so thankful and encouraged to spend time with them. Below I have a copy of my text. Please forgive any editorial errors, since this was presented orally.
So, here we are at Leadership and Vocation camp, and today you are here to find out how history and leadership interact with each other. I hope you have been given some definitions of leadership to work from; so now we need to understand something about history. So what is history? Like many important concepts like love or philosophy, it is easier to describe what it does than define what it is. Well, the literal translation of historia (the root word of history) is a “story.” The best broad definition I have found comes from John Lukacs, a Hungarian-born historian who specializes in World War II, the Cold War, and historiography. He says that history is “remembered past.” Here, Lukacs touches on several important aspects of history. First, man does not have perfect and complete knowledge of the past like God does. His memory of what actually happened is limited by his own capacity for knowledge, the scarcity of sources, the number of differing perspectives, his own or his sources’ bias, and overall lack of resources. What we are given, then, when we read history is what was and is remembered. Imperfect and finite man simply does not have access to all things of the past. But that doesn’t mean that history is fruitless, since man can have a good glimpse of the past through his memory—he can know things (this can be a radical statement in some places). In fact, we couldn’t live without history—we must remember in order to function in daily life. Many of your brushed your teeth morning because you remember someone telling you that you should or you remember an unpleasant experience when you failed to do so. Others of you flushed a toilet since you remember and have habituated yourself to the fact that the contraption operates by pushing down a handle. Also, we can be thankful that we learn from our mistakes so that we don’t repeat them again. How much better is it, then, if we are given the opportunity to learn not only from our own mistakes, but the mistakes of others as well? That is what history does, especially if you go beyond your own personal history to heed the lessons of those who came before you. When you are about to make a choice or take an action in the present that will have consequences for the future and for eternity, it is wise to consult the past. You gain an increased field of vision for your decision making and gain a better perspective than when you rely only on yourself.
To understand any field of knowledge, whether physics, philosophy, or music, you should know its history. All human knowledge is in some sense past knowledge; even prophecies have to be remembered. The issue, then, is not if you somehow make use of history, but rather whether you embrace it or not. Every man is his own historian, but he must also be aware of other men as he lives his life and carries out his vocation, especially if it is a position of leadership. Some of you may indeed be history writers and teachers, and must carry that weight with gravity, joy, and sobriety. Carl Becker, former president of the American Historical Association, said in his 1931 speech to that organization,
We are Mr. Everybody’s historian as well as our own, since our histories serve the double purpose, which written histories have always served, of keeping alive the recollection of memorable men and events. We are thus of that ancient and honorable company of wise men of the tribe, of bards and story-tellers and minstrels, of soothsayers and priests, to whom in successive ages has been entrusted the keeping of the useful myths.
All this does not mean you have to write history books or get your Ph. D. in the discipline, but it does mean that history merits your study.
How then does history interact with leadership? What advantages does it give to someone who is leading others? Two things immediately come to mind: first, history gives the increased scope and perspective necessary to lead effectively and inspire others (no matter what your station may be). Second, history helps you know your audience. Okay, so, first off, history helps one lead well. History serves as a repository of experience and context. It helps us avoid past mistakes in our present actions. In their book, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers, Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May write several small vignettes about leaders using or misusing history for important decisions and analyze the results of those decisions. One example was that of Harry S. Truman and his entire generation immediately after World War II. Truman had experienced the bad results of appeasement in his own era with Hitler. He had seen compromise fly in the face of reality as the Germans took more and more concessions from the rest of Europe to such a point that the Axis powers nearly took over the world. When the Soviet Union began to pose a threat to the West, Truman took a no-compromise position with the Russians and their satellites. He would bring America to the brink of war with the Soviet Union and would often engage in heedless saber-rattling. This soon contributed to an armament escalation and a very tense 50 year Cold War where negotiation was nearly impossible. If he had looked beyond his own experience, then maybe he would have not brought the tension to such a high level, but instead held his temper to ease the situation since it had worked before in similar situations. Before, it had long been a key principle of good diplomacy to avoid escalation unless it was absolutely essential.
On the other hand, after forty years of an inhumane political system and a corrupt command economy, the Soviet Union became sclerotic. A minute collection of voices such as Martin Malia and Alexander Solzhenitsyn believed that the moral impoverishment had reached a point at which the regime must and should have been vigorously opposed. It needed to be defeated. For the majority of Western intelligentsia, however, the USSR was going to be around permanently, and we needed to resign ourselves to this state of affairs. You see this attitude everywhere. It was the prevailing philosophy; it even had a contested holding within the Republican Party. You see it in the various containment policies and diplomatic efforts to ease the Cold War’s tensions.
Enter Ronald Reagan. He, along with other politicians and that small minority of thinkers, believed that the USSR could be defeated without plunging the world into a nuclear apocalypse. Although atomic warfare was a new and tremendous change in world policy, the Soviet Union was still an empire, with all the weaknesses that come with that role: expanded territory requires expansive resources with long supply lines. This state and its satellites expended massive percentages of their economies on building competitive arsenals to keep NATO on its toes. The situation had changed since the Second World War. Reagan decided to push the Soviets. He increased defense spending and announced the expensive “Star Wars” initiative, which was hardly within the development stages (and, to our knowledge, still doesn’t exist). Reagan was taking cues from the World War I arms race: build up your forces, and you’re enemy will have to build up his own. Not only did this move force the Easter bloc to spend even more of its failing economy’s strength toward keeping up with America, but Star Wars also prefaced an end to Intercontinental Ballistic Missile warfare, the one element that allowed the USSR to keep a check on the US. It was a risky move, but Reagan and his allies recognized the signs of a failing regime when they saw one—thanks to history. They pushed at the right time. Soon, the president had contributed to the economic collapse of the East and thus the toppling of Communism thanks to his proactive initiative. Different circumstances require correct reactions: sometimes reserve, sometimes initiative; sometimes gentle subtlety, sometimes fierce boldness.
Always be on the historical lookout; you never know what you may find or what may come in handy for the situations you may find yourself in the future. History will guide you in where to fight and how to fight. You can’t expect to do well in a battle if you have your eyes closed and are swinging about blindly—history is a sort of vision. It lends to us prudence. Use it.
Now to our second point—history allows us to understand something about our audience and therefore helps with our rhetoric. If you are going to win over people, set forth goals clearly, calm and bind together human beings during a crisis, or encourage and regroup your followers after defeat and failure, you’re going to need to be able to communicate effectively toward your end. Quintillian, a great first century Roman orator, said rhetoric was the art of the good man speaking well. To speak well, one must know his listeners. One of the main keys to understanding a people, whether it’s a nation, a church denomination, or social club—is to know its history. Just imagine if someone tried to address my generation without knowing anything about 9/11 and its after-effects. Although it might not be a disaster, it certainly would lack a certain punch to it. It can really allow for potent communication for whatever audience you may be addressing.
If you ever get the chance to study the history of science, you may begin to notice the importance of rhetoric even in the highly influential and supposedly objective realm of physical and natural science. Thomas Kuhn, an American physicist, historian, and philosopher of science, argued that great breakthroughs (or “revolutions”) in the scientific community occur not, as we would think, by a sudden new discovery. Instead, it often comes by an individual who brings together all the theories spread about the place, adds some element that is key to integrating these ideas together, and then presents that theory in a winsome and persuasive way. This was the case with Einstein—not only did he have the great mind to bring all the pieces together when he developed the theory of relativity, but he also had the winsomeness and rhetorical ability to excite people and help them understand what he was saying. Another recent example was Stephen Jay Gould, who just died recently. He was a paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science. As a kind of agnostic/atheist, Gould was not someone any of us would agree with wholeheartedly, but he certainly had many provoking and useful theories. He was the popularizer of “punctuated equilibrium,” which caused shockwaves throughout the scientific community since it disagreed with the theories of Darwinism. But notice that I said he was the popularizer, not the founder, of that theory. His genius was not necessarily the originality of his position; rather, it was the fact that he wrote well. The main form of rhetoric in the intellectual community is writing. Unlike many of his peers, Gould’s writing style was humorous and surprisingly easy to understand by the average Joe. It didn’t mean that he wasn’t a good scientist—quite the contrary. But I am saying that the leader, no matter what field he is in, has to be a good communicator. Does anybody want to guess what Gould’s favorite technique in his writing was? History! Even if it was a scientific report in a scholarly journal, he would go into detail about how he came across his ideas and breakthroughs. Moreover, he helped the common man understand a little more about how science was done and is done by his historical work. That is what I mean when I say that history helps with our rhetoric.
There are two reasons why history is so effective in the leading of men: it helps us understand human nature and it appeals to our imagination. If anything, history serves as a kind of laboratory of mankind. You get to see men interacting with one another as well as with differing factors and forces, such as ideas, natural disasters, conflicts, or other momentous events. You are able to investigate how men act and react in a very factual manner. Gaining knowledge regarding man’s nature is of highest importance if you hope to lead men.
History also appeals to the imagination—both our own and those whom we may lead. History provides concrete people and places—things that really happened—that delight or repulse us. These help drive us and those we are with on toward a goal. It helps us love and enjoy our duty. We come to love heroes and hate villains. We simply can’t hold to abstract principles to carry us through the long haul, much less be carried through the generations. We need people and symbols to be passed on into the generations through the activity of tradition. They give meaning to the everyday duties as well as the extraordinary needs of crisis. To support what I’m saying, let’s look at another example. In the late 1700s, there was this little thing called the French Revolution. In the revolution, France was turned upside down (as was nearly the rest of Europe). Amongst all the habits developing during this stormy period was a firm belief and use of abstracts. For example, the motto “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” often ruled the day. Likewise, a woman dressed as the personification of the idea of reason was led with great pomp into the Notre Dame cathedral. This was mainly because the French, in following the Enlightenment, had abandoned tradition for their own personal rationality and experience. However, the revolutionary fervor simply could not be passed on. Within a generation, Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power. He stood for many things the original revolutionary generation despised—he accrued tremendous military and political power. He inculcated passions and emotions and could use them to inspire his men. A cult of hero worship surrounded him. He fused a traditional flavor of the imperial with the new revolutionary temperament that had sprung up just a generation before. He was a concrete living hero who people knew would go down into the history books. It isn’t by mere fancy that Napoleon said that he who has imagination rules the world. The French people could not follow abstracts for long, and we shouldn’t expect any one else to either.
All great leaders that you come across used history in some way, no matter what they stood for. Those who hold a position of authority but do not appeal to the imagination are only bureaucrats. They merely manage time, manpower, and resources in a mathematical manner. Often their goal is not excellence and certainly not art. Instead, it is merely getting by and keeping their own position secure. I hope you sense how depressingly sterile this is. Men naturally want something that is robust, living, and active. They are trained and habituated to think otherwise. Death is in the hands of bureaucrats.
So we have seen that history is useful, and is really a key that every real leader uses. But we haven’t said anything about the leaders themselves. What I have mostly been talking about is greatness: whether it’s Cincinnatus, George Washington, King Alfred I, Julius Caesar, or Alexander the Great. I want to point out that not all great men are good. In fact, a lot of those who are called “Great Men” are actually pretty bad and often destroy institutions, order, liberty, and tradition. For example, you see people like Lenin wielding history and the Marxist idea of history all the time; this is one of the ways in which he manipulated people. Alexander the Great spread Hellenism throughout the known world, but destroyed Greece itself in the process. Richard Weaver, a 20th century conservative writer, pointed out that “culture shapers” oftentimes “made a virtue of desecration.” These great world-changing men often committed blasphemous acts. For example, Alexander the Great declared himself a god; Julius Caesar and his descendants were divinized; Napoleon crowned himself emperor rather than have the pope do so. These are proud and haughty men. They are often demagogues and tyrants who use history in a base way to win the emotions of the masses. Remember when Scripture says “Pride cometh before a fall”? Oftentimes, these heady men helped lead to the decline and destruction of their civilizations that they supposedly loved. I want to contrast these sorts of men with those whom I will call “Good Men.” When I do this, I am changing the discussion to focus not merely on power (as we have been so far) but also on justice. As Christians, we must use history rightly—to a moral end. History, like all things, is good. However, it can be bent and twisted to do evil. There are those that disagree with me, such as Niccolo Machiavelli. He was a Renaissance political philosopher, diplomat, and civil servant in Florence, Italy. When the republic of Florence was overtaken by the powerful Medici family, he was ousted and was left to writing history and political theory. You might recognize his most famous work: The Prince. In that book, Machiavelli simply used examples of history to help leaders gain, keep, and maintain power, generally through brutality and fear. Machiavelli’s analysis and advice was almost totally devoid of morality. In being obsessed with temporal power, he lost sight of the eternal perspective. I am saying we need to be extending history beyond mere utility into the sphere of the good and right.
Let’s contrast Machiavelli with another historian so you can see what I am talking about. Let’s look at Thucydides, one of the first known historians. He was a Greek and wrote the famous History of the Peloponnesian War. He served as a general in the famous Peloponnesian War, where Athens and its allies fought against Sparta and its allies. Basically, it was the great civil war of Greece. He had once been an aristocrat in Athens, but was ostracized when some of his personal enemies came to power. His exile did allow him one luxury: he was now able to observe the war from both sides. Out of this he created a historical masterpiece. One of his main observations on the part of both sides was the problem of pride, or “hubris.” Supposedly great men would convince their fellow countrymen to undertake an ambitious plan to expand the power of their city, only to fall into a fatal decision that would be their undoing. Soon, the proud were brought low, and all of Greece suffered for it. The Peloponnesian war, according to Thucydides, was a real-life tragedy. Thucydides’ critique of leaders and the sadness he felt about the whole war indicates his goal of goodness, justice, and humility rather than greatness and power. Power hunger and delusions of grandeur had torn the once-great Greece into shreds.
Now, it’s easy to get depressed here. With the increased stability, foresight, and expanded imagination you gain from studying history, it is easy to pick up the dire situations around you and prophesy the almost doomed future ahead. You will know what a declining culture and declining civilization look like, and will see the signs of decay all around you. I doubt many of you are suffering from this now, but I am often wrong. If you are, here is a bit of true encouragement for you from Leopold von Ranke. Von Ranke was probably one of THE most influential historians of all time; he really revolutionized how history was done after the 1800s. He once said, “All generations are equidistant from God.” In other words, every generation is capable of spiritual insight and noble action. Those abilities are not lost merely because you were born after your parents. Some of us may never lead a good and great life like George Washington or Charlemagne. But there will come a time when we will have to make a good decision. It is our duty to do so, no matter how bleak the situation. Let’s look at Lord Acton. He was an English historian in the 1800s, and many of you will recognize his most famous dictum: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We generally apply this to secular politics. But we need to look at the context of the quote. Lord Acton was criticizing the 1870 pronouncement of Pope Pius IX which declared the pope infallible. Although Acton was a Catholic, he opposed this measure. Let’s look at the full quote, which was addressed to a fellow Catholic who supported this infallibility:
I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption, it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or certainty of corruption by full authority. There is no worse heresy than the fact that the office sanctifies the holder of it.
Lord Acton was discussing not a political, but an ecclesiastical (or church) matter, and argued for a diffusion of powers. He lost, but he will be judged by an eternal God for what he said. What would he have to answer for if he had simply buckled under this crisis in his church?
We can still ask, “Why should we do history?” I mean, we’ve seen it’s effective; we see that it can be put toward a good end. So what? The answer is love. Before our Lord and Savior left, He gave us two commandments: love our neighbor as ourselves and love our God with all our hearts, souls, bodies, and minds. History and love are connected, since history is a kind of knowledge. To love something, you must first know something about it. Think about it—before you can love God, you need to know that it’s God. The same can go for your parents—there is something about them that you know is lovely. Love is the cause of all movement and action in the first place. Turning to the love of neighbor—knowing more about a person allows for an increased love of them. You can love others, living and dead, in learning more about their history and helping cultivate how they are remembered. This applies to our enemies as well—part of loving our enemies is remembering them correctly. (By the way, I didn’t come up with this myself—the honor of this goes to the great 20th century historiographer Herbert Butterfield, among others). Contrary to popular belief, the conqueror does not get carte blanche on history; if he thinks and acts so, he becomes a liar for reporting something incorrectly. Remember this as you continue your studies. You must tell the truth, even if it may hurt your case.
It may sound easy to know what you love, but you would be surprised how often this is ignored, especially in the realm of evangelicalism. Here—I’ll show you. How many of you here want to return the U.S. government to the original intention of the Founders? Raise your hand. I did at one point, too. It’s one of the factors that brought me here to PHC in the first place. Yeah, it’s a common argument and point made these days. How many of you know what all the Founders actually said about politics and government? There was a lot of disagreement! You need to know which Founders you want to conform to before you start beating around the Hill calling for Original Intent. Do you agree with Hamilton or Jefferson? Henry and Mason or Marshall and Jay? Rush or Paine? We are talking about a wide field of debate, with subtle nuances and forgotten principles. With that in mind, what does this say about our love for America? I’m not talking about how much passion we feel for her, or what our personal vision of her ideal would be. I’m asking about what she is and what about that is desirable. It’s something to think on, especially if you guys are going to be active citizens. Know what you love. Know what you are fighting for.
History also has a theological end: it helps us know and love God. Remember when we talked about knowing more about man’s nature through the laboratory of history? Well, in Whose image is man created? God’s. Knowing about man in some way helps us know about God. We also get to see God interact with his creatures through time. One of my favorite verses is Isaiah 46:9-10: “Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me, Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure.” This is really what it’s all about. So if all else fails, that something that you can hang your hat on.
As you go out from this place, you will have to bear what some have called the great responsibility of time. Study the past; be transformed by it; direct your knowledge toward the good. It is a scary world out there, and a war is still raging on. I would implore all of you to never forget that our weapon is a story.