"Paterfamilias," New Criterion, March 1996.
Richard Brookhiser remarks, and laments, that George Washington is no longer first in the hearts of his countrymen. Brookhiser’s aim is to restore him in our hearts by way of our minds, an aim that if accomplished would better both our hearts and minds. His book is concise, deft in style, and animated with thought in every sentence. It is, the author says, moral biography in the mode of Plutarch. Its material is history and moral and political philosophy, but it is more practical than either because we are led to see things from Washington’s point of view and thus to understand not so much his time, or the forces impinging on him, or the theories implicitly adopted by him, as his choices. The result is a wonderful success.
Brookhiser is not a historian, but he is a reproach to historians and to moral philosophers and academics generally. He uses the multi-volume biographies written by Douglas Southal Freeman and James Thomas Flexner, but, despite the lavish detail of their books, these historians did not know how to analyze the greatness of a great man. Brookhiser does. He selects the accidents in Washington’s life that are not accidental, that reflect Washington’s character or the habit of his anticipations and responses. He shows how Washington’s character was suited to his attainments, so that the latter, while extraordinary, are no surprise.
Brookhiser says that we are not willing enough to be awed by such a man, as were his contemporaries. We believe simultaneously as idealists that ideas are self-executing and as reductionists that the men involved with them have trivial motives. Perhaps the two are connected: the ideas are advanced by historical forces men cannot adopt or control as their own but must adjust themselves to, as petty-self-seekers. The heralds of these forces are the “democratic historians” Tocqueville spoke of, a group much larger than professional historians that includes the social scientists of our day, all of them levelers and denigrators of everyone save fellow-denigrators (and only the most fashionable of them).
Brookhiser’s concern with character does join with a recent trend in moral philosophy of rebellion against the notion, long dominant in analytic philosophy, that moral behavior is a matter of obeying rules and moral thinking a matter of fixing them. But the philosophers who promote character are too democratically confident that we can enjoy all the virtues, and they are professionally incapable of awe. Their remarks on character—certainly a refreshing change— do not extend to the study of actual characters. But Brookhiser shows admiringly, and without any intention to theorize, how the relation of passion to interest had to be Washington’s concern in getting the troops of the Continental army to reenlist, or how he had to think of his reputation, his character in the eyes of others, as a factor in his own character. These are only two of several moral questions that are raised. With the aid of Brookhiser’s appreciation, George Washington becomes a teacher of morality. His example does not merely illustrate the moral principle (thus falling short of it) but expands or sharpens it. Aristotle speaks of the importance of example in morality, and perhaps, if he had been more interested in morality, he would have written a version of Plutarch’sLives to extend the generalities in the Ethics.