Book Review: ‘The Statesman as Thinker: Portraits of Greatness, Courage and Moderation’

A brief analysis of great statesmen
BY Dustin Bass TIMEMay 5, 2022 PRINT

Daniel J. Mahoney has written a timely book. As the American public on both ends of the political spectrum seem to be weary of politicians’ wayward rhetoric and actions, Mahoney has given readers, and hopefully present and future politicians, a recollection of honorable statesmen of the past three centuries.

“The Statesman as Thinker” reads like a modern version of “Plutarch’s Lives,” discussing the lives, works, and political philosophies of great statesmen. In the same vein as Plutarch, most of Mahoney’s selected statesmen are expected, but not all. The author utilizes statesmen of the West: America, Great Britain, and France, and, one influenced greatly by the West, then: Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic.

It’s the Czech Republic choice, and the final statesman, that makes the book even more intriguing. The author discusses what some may consider “The Usual Suspects” with Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and Charles de Gaulle, and their impact on political thought and their contributions to their particular countries and civilization in general.

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A large portrait of former President of Czechoslovakia and Czech Republic Vaclav Havel with the sign “Havel Forever” hangs on the National Museum behind the St. Wenceslas statue on the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution in Prague, Czech Republic, on Nov. 17, 2014. (Matej Divizna/Getty Images)

Vaclav Havel, the Eastern European writer-turned-president, seems to be a slight pivot from the typical formula found in the book. As the other statesmen had their political upbringings influenced by Christian and/or Enlightenment thinking, Havel grew up behind the Iron Curtain where communist thought was predominant. It may be the author’s intent to prove that rational political thought can grow even in less-than-fertile ground.

Great Men, Not Perfect Men

Mahoney makes clear that each great man had their flaws, as all individuals do. The strength and virtues of these statesmen, and their ability to think clearly and to convey their thoughts clearly to their audience, provide aspiration for today’s leaders. But it’s their flaws, and their incorrect perspectives at times, that should provide today’s leaders hope that not all is lost when they fail or prove to be shortsighted.

Furthermore, the author touches occasionally on combating the current trend that demands perfection from its former leaders, who are otherwise “canceled” or threatened to be. This demand for perfection not only eliminates aspiration, but also hope. Mahoney’s examples of great statesmen are a course in common sense when considering what makes great people great.

A Modern Plutarch Work

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The third volume of a 1727 edition of “Plutarch’s Lives.” Private Collection of S. Whitehead. (PD-US)

As aforementioned, “The Statesman as Thinker” plays up to the idea of Plutarch. The subtitle of the book proves as much: “Portraits of Greatness, Courage and Moderation.”

Just as with Plutarch’s subjects, none of these individuals were without trial and difficulty, some more than others. Those challenges helped form their perspectives on the world. It’s these challenges and their ability to adapt and overcome that facilitated their ability to be a thinker. As the author suggests, it is the ability to think, and think outside of the norm, that made them exceptional leaders.

There is a legitimate worry that today’s politicians have hardly become statesmen and are even further from being thinkers. For Mahoney, his examples prove necessary to help steer leaders of every age and geographic locale more toward statesmanship and less toward ideologies.

cicero bust
A bust of the great ancient Roman statesman Cicero. (Heribert Pohl/CC BY-SA 2.0)

A Book for Future Leaders

This is a quick read covering the ideas of “the great and the good” and what makes a statesman. Readers will briefly get a sense of the subjects presented and what made them great. The author understands that these are brief presentations of wise, influential, and complex statesmen, which is why he provides “suggested readings” at the end of each chapter. Truly, each subject is worth discovering and dissecting at a deeper level.

“The Statesman as Thinker” is an enjoyable read full of great information about each person. It also provides the reader with a sense of gratitude for those who came before and a hope that a replication of sorts can be accomplished.

As is made clear with the six historical figures, they were all separated from each other by either time or space. This fact should be an indication that just because all six are no longer alive doesn’t mean their influence on present and future statesmen has died.

‘The Statesman as Thinker: Portraits of Greatness, Courage and Moderation’
By Daniel J. Mahoney
Encounter Books, May 24, 2022
Hardcover: 232 pages

Dustin Bass
Dustin Bass is the host of Epoch TV's About the Book: A Show about New Books With the Authors Who Wrote Them. He is an author and co-host of The Sons of History podcast.
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