There has been a great deal of commentary on character in this election. In my opinion much of that commentary confuses the teaching of Emily Post and the teaching of Aristotle. That is, the commentary imputes to manners the moral quality of virtue. It examines failures to live up to au courant social conventions and suggests that such failure indicates inadequacy for high public office.
Robert Jeffrey’s article yesterday on the “magnificence” of Donald Trump offers lively part of the case that these conventional critiques are completely wrong. Bad manners may be so distant from the exercise of practical wisdom as to not amount to a hill of beans (to paraphrase the pusillanimous man of Casablanca). As a surrogate for magnanimity, then, what else might we examine for an outsider other than magnificence?
Of Suns and Rays
Harry Jaffa’s Thomism and Aristotelianism adds some color. Jaffa criticized St. Thomas’ organization of the moral virtues using a metaphor of the sun and rays. Jaffa described the moral virtues as radiating from practical wisdom such that each virtue represented a habit formed by the repeated application of practical wisdom to recurring practical events in the life of a publicly active person (that is, in political life, by which he meant a broader idea than just the act of holding public office). Their ranking, Jaffa suggested, comes from their closeness to the sun, i.e., things most demanding of practical wisdom and thus highest in political life.
For a person to be magnificent, which Aristotle ranks by this ordering as the highest virtue related to money and property, one would have to have made the right judgments about large expenditures (which presupposes the good fortune to possess large amounts to dispose of) and to have made those judgments many times (because virtue is a habit). This would not be possible without the critical faculties to determine what is the right large expenditure and when is the best time to make it. . Now, a person who has the right critical faculties to make such judgments would also have the right critical faculties to make other prudential judgments, if, as they do in Jaffa’s account, the virtues radiate from the same faculty. Jeffrey makes an excellent point that the highest expression of magnificence in the American regime might be self-funding a campaign, although Trump’s pre-political life includes many others.
Of the moral virtues there are two higher virtues that stand out: magnanimity and justice. Magnanimity is the habit with respect to high honors (a higher practical good than money) and justice (the highest practical good other than practical wisdom itself, remembering the former does not exist without the latter) the habit of giving to each his due and lawfulness. Justice can only be practiced on a great scale if one is in a high office and there is action to be taken that greatly affects lawfulness or giving to each his due. Justice thus is linked to magnanimity because without magnanimity there is no one worthy with sufficient ambition to do great justice.
The Crown of the Virtues
Aristotelian magnanimity is different from the other virtues. It is the crown of the virtues. As the crown of the virtues, Aristotle seems to suggest that all the other virtues are somehow prior to (that is, they must exist before) magnanimity. How is this so?
First, there is the contrary vice, pusillanimity. The pusillanimous man is capable of doing great things but has an inadequate desire to do them. To be capable of great things means that the person in question must possess practical wisdom (and, having done many things well, developed habits around that way of doing things) but lacks ambition to seek out the opportunity for high honor.
Second, the virtue of magnanimity cannot be exercised without opportunity. One resulting feature is that it might be hard to tell the difference between a magnanimous man and a prideful jerk. He is marked by contempt for others because of his high opinion of himself and a need to have something to great to do. The magnanimous man cannot always be busying himself with magnanimous things because he is dependent on chance: no secession crisis, no Lincoln; no Hitler, no Churchill; no Napoleon, no John Duke of Marlborough. As a result the magnanimous man is appears slow and sluggish when there is not some great benefit to confer on others (the greatest benefit being a great act of justice, such as a restoration of law and order and the political and economic purchase of the middle class). He is bored.
The magnanimous man would not be interested in warming a chair. As a result, the habit of magnanimity in remission is to lay in wait for an opportunity to do something worthwhile. What does he do while he waits? Aristotle’s description of virtue suggests that he must busy himself with other things such as exercising the other virtues, the most visible of which (especially in our age of celebrity) might be magnificence. Could that not be an expression of Aristotelian character in the absence of an attainable high honor?
If one entertains the thesis that we have arrived at a great crisis of republican government (e.g., 20 of 28 years, headed toward 28 of 36, of the same two families holding an office that increasingly determines all policy decisions in an increasingly oligarchic manner), then the office at this particular juncture would be singularly appealing to a person of magnanimous disposition. That person would, if they were wealthy, be someone who had exercised the virtue of magnificence (i.e., practical wisdom would lead them to certain choices on great expenditures). They might be criticized for being a late entrant but it would be unclear whether such late entrance would be a habit of pusillanimity becoming magnanimity or vanity or just magnanimity waiting for opportunity.
Contrasting Clinton and Trump
When this “character” analysis is applied to the other candidate in the race the results are ugly.
There is no mistaking that Clinton desires the honors of high office. Clinton also has the manners expected of the office. Outwardly she is a conventional candidate, says please and thank you and knows the rules of decorum in front of the cameras that appeal to the gatekeepers in the elite classes. But if you examine her behavior in high office, particularly as Secretary of State, you see something different. Rather than use the office of Secretary of State to confer a great benefit (like justice or peace) or to use the Clinton Foundation for some magnificent purpose, there is a fairly clear pattern that both were used for something low: self-enrichment from public service. Rather than reflect magnanimous traits it seems to reflect the vice of illiberality or a grasping character. Having these kinds of vices, by Jaffa’s ordering, reflects a weak faculty for practical wisdom, or as Trump colorfully put in the debates “bad judgment.” This bad judgment also would be reflected in her tenure as Secretary of State, which seems to many a practical disaster of a high order. Thus the concern of many is that these same vices (this “bad judgment”) will hobble (if not cripple) a Clinton presidency.
If you evaluate Trump by this standard and impute to him actual magnificence, and thus the possibility of magnanimity and justice, you arrive at a possible an explanation for his life’s path. That is, from Reagan on there was no great crisis, at least not anywhere near as great as the current crisis. There was 9/11 and the financial crises of 2000 and 2008 but there was no great political dispute. In the absence of a great political dispute, the parties were able to pursue essentially the same orthodoxies (the uniparty critique). These served adequately enough that many held out the possibility that if one just elected Republicans or Democrats who gently tugged in their preferred direction, all could eventually be well.
A magnanimous person in that context might choose a high-flying private life. Churchill in his essay A Second Chance once speculated that this could have been his choice if he had won too many times at gambling. Lincoln left politics until the repeal of the Missouri Compromise convinced him that slavery was on a path to dominate the whole of the Union. Until now there was nothing much for a magnanimous man in a highly commercial culture such as ours to do, other than to busy himself with building an empire of brands, while the country was on autopilot from the successes of the Reagan presidency. we But somewhere along the way the autopilot failed, and we reached a point of serious political crisis where these orthodoxies flowered into unrestrained globalism, crony capitalism, and identity politics. This created an excluded middle class, perpetual war, and an oligarchic elite that seems (unsurprisingly) to be developing hereditary concerns. Would not the otherwise bored or magnanimous statesman be provoked to try to obtain a great honor in righting the ship of state at the critical moment? Trump’s two-minute closing argument video explicitly makes this claim.
Ridicule is Not an Argument
I am not suggesting this is the final analysis. I can already hear the ridicule: Trump is magnanimous like a plucked chicken is a man because they are both featherless bipeds. It would be foolish to conclude a definitive profile on the point. It is speculation about a possibility. Maybe only a Churchill can judge a De Gaulle. I don’t know. I do know that time and time again such statesmen have been rejected. Churchill was hated for the Dardanelles catastrophe, and his odd manners were considered by many to be atrocious. De Gaulle barely escaped arrest when his countrymen brokered a deal with Hitler. The point is these things are often remarkably unclear to contemporary opinion. That is one reason why magnanimity is such an important and misdiagnosed virtue. Without enormous ambition that is easily dismissed as arrogance such great characters would not be there when we need them.
In any event, statesmanship and magnanimity are about choices—the right ones for the right reasons over the whole of a public life. And Trump will have many serious choices ahead of him should he win, ones about which he has little direct experience to serve as a guide. But this Aristotelian character test suggests there is only one candidate who might just pass, and it is not the one who always refrains from epithets in public.