Prudence, taking in what’s out there in order to know what to do, has to take in the present. Again if we think of the physician, it means taking in the body language of the patient, hearing how the patient presents with his or her affliction. And by the way, to take in the patient or the situation as it presents itself to you – and the term here in Latin was docilitas, from which we get our English word “docility.” But docility didn’t mean a bovine passivity for Thomas Aquinas. It means the capacity to be still, the capacity to listen, the capacity to be attentive and alert to what’s going on in the present as it discloses itself to you.
And then the third dimension of prudence, practical wisdom. And I don’t know that there’s any English equivalent; the Latin term was solertia. The English phrase that would best translate solertia is a readiness for the unexpected. It is a brilliant phrase. You remember Mario Savio, the protestor in the ’60s. Great complaints against bureaucracy and his terse dismissal of bureaucracy – it’s unfair to bureaucrats, but he said, “They’re unacquainted with novelty.” It’s a brilliant phrase, because what takes place in a large-scale organization is you reduce things to routines and procedures. So in a sense, you never get a really new case. You’re always relocating the case in your already preestablished routines – preset goals, preset means of reaching those goals. And so Mario Savio, his way of undercutting this bureaucratic mentality was to say “it’s unacquainted with novelty.” Well, I don’t agree entirely with his wholesale dismissal but I do know, in the helping professions, if you’re to really help that patient and be attentive to that patient, then you simply do not reduce that patient to things that you’ve already dealt with in the past. You’ve got to be open to nuance in the particulars of the case. And we all know of political leaders and leaders of huge bureaucracies who get stuck in the same trap. They don’t have that kind of cognitive distance from what’s going on to see what’s new here, and therefore that which requires them to venture out into the unknown in fresh ways.
So the first virtue required is the leader’s practical wisdom, which is a complicated thing. It requires a kind of openness to the past, the present and the future in order to know how fittingly and appropriately to respond to what the occasion demands. Now, of course, given the difficulty of this, that’s why modern leaders rely heavily on advisors, consultants, to help them set priorities. Consultancy has become a kind of growth industry today. You might almost call it a growth superstition because there’s a kind of deference to the consultant that borders on the superstitious. Just as the Greek general resorted to the seer who read the entrails of birds to discern the future and to tamp down the anxieties of the general as he faced all the imponderables of that future, so modern leaders tend to rely on consultants to gather in as much information as they can about the future to tamp down their anxieties as they make their decisions.
It’s kind of interesting to see the way in which consultants have grown across the last 20 to 30 to 40 years. Originally they were much more foolish than the ancient seer. You remember, the ancient seer, when he read the entrails of birds, always wrapped it in ambiguity so no matter how things turned out, you couldn’t say he was flat out wrong. But modern consultants at one stage of naïveté in their cognitive optimism about the future would offer to management predictions of the future. That was very bad, because they could be caught out wrong. So they retracted from predictions and talked about projections. Better, softer language. Now you’ve got multiple projections and then you move even further in the direction of covering yourself by talking about alternative scenarios. That leaves you with a chance of being hired when the next crisis emerges in the corporation, but no matter how much wisdom and information leaders take in, they cannot dispel all doubts or eliminate all risks. At best, they choose, as the saying goes, wisely what risks to take. That’s what decision-making is about when you come to the question of venturing out into the imponderable unknown.
So in addition to the virtue of wisdom, the leader needs courage. A rough patch of trouble, as I said earlier, usually follows hard choices, and most decisions that cross a president’s desk are hard choices. They provoke a coefficient of adversity. I spent five years at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics in Washington before I came to SMU in a Chair bankrolled by the Kennedy family. And I remember Sargent Shriver saying to me once, he said, “You know, Bill, by the time a decision reached my brother-in-law’s desk, it was always an ethical choice.”
You know, ethics includes two kinds of problems. One kind of problem is the temptation where there’s a clear distinction between right and wrong; that’s an ethical issue, a temptation. That’s an old-fashioned word, “temptation.” Our modern word is “rationalization.” You know what’s right and you maneuver yourself intellectually to justify doing what you ought not to do. That’s one kind of ethical choice and, by the way, ethical choices of that kind do cross a president’s desk. But the second kind of moral choice and the kind that Sargent Shriver was talking about was not a temptation but a quandary. And a quandary is a situation where you face competing goods so that no matter which way you turn, you cannot fully respond to one good and also satisfy the other good. You cannot turn this way towards this good and fully satisfy this good. Or competing evils. If you move this way to avoid this evil, you’re also imposing some forfeit or loss over here. If you move this way in order to avoid this evil, you’re imposing some forfeit on loss on this form of action. And it was quandaries that I think Sargent Shriver was saying, because by the time a decision comes to the president’s desk, you’re dealing with a question of priorities.
I talked about public life as the art of acting in concert with others for the common good, but the word “common good” breaks up into (a) basic goods, and they’re the competing goods of food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, education, and not only are there basic goods but there are the higher goods of a culture, because as a society we have the problem of not only serving the perpetuation of existence, which is what food and clothing and shelter is all about, but the support of higher forms of life. We have to relate not only to a society’s necessities but to its flourishing; not only to its existence but its developed existence; not only to its being but its well being. And you see that word “common good” is a very complicated term because it includes not only basic goods but higher goods. And by the time a decision comes across any executive’s desk, but intensively so the presidency of the United States, you’re engaged in the difficult task of establishing priorities.
Now, by the way, the word “compromise” has a different meaning in each of these settings. In the case of a temptation, where there’s a clear distinction between right and wrong, where we know what is right and we do what is wrong, compromise there means violating your fundamental integrity. You’re supposed to be an agent for your corporation but you award the contract on the basis of what the buyer will do for you. You’ve compromised yourself as a fiduciary agent. If you double bill as a physician, you’ve compromised yourself, et cetera. But in the case of a quandary, the second kind of moral problem, compromise here has a very different meaning because you face competing goods and competing evils, so that in terms of single issue-oriented people in politics, you look like a compromiser in the sense that you’ve violated your fundamental integrity, but in fact you have to deal with competing claims and strike off the best possible compromise that you can in an imperfect world. And the trouble is these two different circumstances get confused with one another, because the absolutist, the single-issue person, views the compromise of the second kind as a compromise of the first type. So that adds to the terrific pressure that political leaders, of course, are under. By the time a decision reaches a president’s desk, the president is confronted with hard choices because no matter which way he moves under the circumstance of dilemma or controversy or conflict, his or her action is going to provoke a coefficient of adversity.
Now, Thomas Aquinas defined courage – I’ll go back to him. I’m not a Catholic, by the way, but I got a lot of help from Thomas across a lifetime. Thomas Aquinas defined courage as firmness of soul in the face of adversity. And such courage has two aspects: active and passive. There’s an active side to courage, and that’s why it was originally associated with what? The battlefield. You’ve got a problem? You don’t dodge it; you don’t duck it. You take it on. But in defeat, courage also calls for an equally important, somewhat more passive capacity for endurance or resilience, an ability to pick oneself up off the floor and carry on. I’d refer back to Thomas Aquinas but I think of William Faulkner’s novels, and I think of this and his Nobel Prize speech. He referred to one of his heroines, “Dilcy endured.” She wasn’t in a position to vanquish her circumstances, this Black woman, but by Heaven, she had a capacity for resilience and endurance. Now our modern political campaigns test the virtue of endurance to the point of cruelty.
Leadership also requires – I’m going to simply rely on what we can do with those ancient cardinal virtues – requires the virtue of temperance. Plato once noted that to govern others, one must also be able to govern oneself if you’re going to do it effectively. And we don’t have to belabor the way that an immensely gifted leader damaged his efficacy as a President by his lack of this ability to keep himself under discipline, under control. But Plato also recognized that the greater long-term danger to a republic’s integrity comes from the intrusion and corruption of cash – not sex – in his political life. On the take is even worse than on the make. The problem is not simply individual – the politician on the take – but social: the power of ravenous interest groups and their lobbyists. And today, of course, we estimate the candidate’s relative power by money more than votes or endorsements. The ability early-on to generate the money in the last election gave a huge edge to the man who is now President of the United States. There’s no doubt about that.
So finally, leadership in a democracy also requires, for want of a better term, the virtue of public spiritedness. I’m converting now what I would have to say about justice into that term, public spiritedness, what the founders of the country called public virtue, which they defined as a readiness to sacrifice self-interest to the common good. By the way, at the time of the American Revolution – those of you who are historians know this – the most often invoked term was liberty, but the second most often invoked term at the time of the American Revolution was public virtue. Why public virtue? Because the founders recognized that liberty would not long survive unless in the uses of their liberty, the American people sustained a readiness to serve the good of all. They needed public virtue, that is, a readiness to sacrifice self-interest to the common good, in order to win a war, right? Every war calls for sacrifice. But the founders of this country had something further in mind. You needed public virtue not only for the instrumental purpose of winning a war but in order to create the kind of society that you aspired to. In other words, you’re not talking about the means to an end but you’re talking about the end that you’re trying to create.
And of course, they were very knowledgeable and self-conscious about this because they read Montesque. And Montesque said there are three basic types of government. There’s despotism and there’s aristocracy or a monarchy, and then there’s a republic. And each type of government depends upon a certain basic energy to make it work, to make it tick. A despotism requires the energy of fear. You do what the tyrant asks you to do because if you don’t do it, you might lose your property, you might lose your life. Fear is what makes a despotic society tick. And then what makes an aristocratic or monarchical society tick is not fear. If it organizes by fear, it’s moving in the direction of tyranny. But what makes it work when it’s working right is the aspiration to honor and excellence. You don’t simply sit on your hearth. You want to do well by the court and by the king and by your peers. Your honor is at stake. The aspiration to honor and excellence is what makes for an aristocratic society.
He said, well, if you’re talking about a republic now – and where you’ve repudiated fear as the thing that makes a society work and you’ve repudiated the aspiration to honor, because you don’t establish barons and all the rest, dukes and kings, what’s going to make such a society work? Public virtue. The readiness on the part of ordinary citizens to sacrifice self-interest to the common good. Maybe not always on the scale of a Joan of Arc or a Martin Luther King, not the grand sacrifice maybe that’s asked for sometimes, but at least a nation capable of small sacrifices. And that’s what deToqueville saw in the United States, one of the most interesting features of the United States, when he came to this country.
Why the good of all? Well, the framers of the Constitution, as I read it, carried forward a sense of community because they weren’t just individualists. Individualism was the primary language in this country, as Robert Bella and his colleagues said in Habits of the Heart. We invoke the term “liberty” that related to the individual’s aspirations and goals. But if you think of our first words spoken as a nation, our very first words, post-natal words, were “We the people.” The Preamble to the Constitution does not say “we the factions of the United States” or “we the interest groups of the United States” or “we the individuals of the United States,” but “we the people of the United States.” It’s a quite remarkable beginning. The first birth cries out of the womb. We have been called a nation devoted to individualism. While in many respects admirable, individualism does not help up recognize and respond adequately to the dilemmas we face in an interconnected world. Individualism has helped create a world in which individuals alone cannot survive.
So we need what I’ve called public-spiritedness. Public-spiritedness. The readiness to sacrifice, make some sacrifices on behalf of the common good. And learning something about the art of acting in concert with others for the common good. There’s a subjective side to that and an objective side. The subjective side is learning something about the art of acting in concert with others, but that isn’t all. It’s also the question of the goal towards which you move, because after all, interest groups learn something about the art of acting in concert with others – you learn how to do it within the interest group. But the objective side of it is not simply learning artfully to act in concert with others but for the common good. And if we get this down right, then we need, of course, this not only in our political leaders but also in the leaders of corporations and other huge organizations.
I happed to belong to a religious tradition that, in its official prayers, offers a prayer for the President of the United States. Well, if you offer intercessions for Bill Clinton and now for George Bush that they might rule righteously, then we’d better think about offering prayers for Bill Gates, Ted Turner, George Sorros, and Rupert Murdock as well. Forty or fifty business leaders wield as much wealth, power and influence today as all but a few heads of state in the modern world. We woefully underestimate their power if we think of business leaders as engaged simply in private enterprise, for their decisions have huge public impacts, not only on their stockholders but on the jobs we need, the neighborhoods in which we live, the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the schools in which we learn. In effect, business leaders and professional leaders are unelected public officials in a society like ours.
So what does leadership in a democracy require? The Greek art of persuasion, certainly, but morally it also requires the virtues of wisdom, courage, restraint or temperance, and public spiritedness or justice as well. And we won’t get enough of these virtues if we demand them of our political leaders alone. The leaders of other powerful institutions in the society, business and professional, must evince these virtues as well.
Now, I understand that the final speaker is not going to give his speech. What I wasn’t clear is whether you planned to play his tape or merely send it out. I didn’t listen carefully. You’re going to play it here? Well, that helps me because the other part of my speech – I wasn’t aware of that fully when I talked earlier with Anneleise. The other part of my speech was to talk about professionals, but I think we’ve now reached 5 after 10:00 and I’d better not impose that on you, to move to this other range of leadership in the modern world, in order to honor Putnam’s appearance.