Last night we read John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage in class.  It provoked a fascinating discussion.

The book, if you haven’t read it, is a compendium of stories (most of them pretty riveting) of U.S. Senators who, for the sake of principle, have bucked one or more of three political “pressures” that Kennedy identifies: (1) the need to be liked, (2) the need to be re-elected, (3) the pressures of your constituency and interest groups.

In Congress, John Quincy Adams, for instance, supported an embargo against Great Britain even though it would hurt the commercial interests of his home state, Massachusetts — triggering incredible fury among his friends.

JFK’s book is not about statesmen, per se — but at one point, he almost inadvertently uses the term in his concluding chapter, writing:

[W]hat then caused the statesmen in the preceding pages to act as they did?  It was not because they ‘loved the public better than themselves.’  On the contrary it was precisely because they did love themselves – because each one’s need to maintain his own respect for himself was more important to him than his popularity with others — because his desire to win or maintain a reputation for integrity and courage was stronger than his desire to maintain his office — because his conscience, his personal standards of ethics, his integrity or morality, call it what you will — was stronger than the pressures of public disapproval — because his faith that his course was the best one, and would ultimately be vindicated, outweighed his fear of public reprisal.

Many of Kennedy’s stories fall into this vein — Senators who were so courageous they ended up resigning or retiring from office, effectively taking themselves out of politics, for the sake of principle.

This idea of statesmanship prompted a real question for the class.  Check out these two Ven diagrams.  The first one shows statesmanship (S) and courage (C) as separate but overlapping.  Some statesmen are courageous, some courageous leaders are statesmen, but there are also those who are courageous who are not statesmen and those who are statesman who are not courageous.


The class found the last idea in particular troubling.  Who would be an example of a statesmen who would not be courageous?  We talked about Plato’s idea that statesmen successfully “herd” and “weave” varying political interest and people, which raises the interesting idea that statesmen could be so good at politics they might not need to be courageous.

Now look at this Ven diagram (yes, I know it looks like a 5 year old drew it).  Here, statesmanship is a subset of courage.  All statesmen are courageous, but not all courageous leaders are statesmen, but there are no statesmen who are not courageous.


The students seemed to agree with this more — and I lean in this direction as well.  But Kennedy makes this a tough case, because if a necessary part of courage is that you might take yourself out of politics on principle — that does not seem to square with Plato’s idea of the statesman, always in control, always weaving those different human natures into a single cloth, always herding those bipeds.  It seems on Plato’s idea that the statesmen must always be in politics.

Well, as I told the class, for now, anyway, this remains a journey, not a destination.  Because there’s no systematic account of statesmanship, we are puzzling out these tough margin questions together.  The questions themselves, in some ways, are the answers.

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