Misfiring the Canon
By Charles Hill
Yale University Press, 2010
Charles Hill is God. He sees all and he knows all. In Israel by day, whispering sage counsel in Netanyahu’s ear, he is in Vietnam by night, steadying the tilting domino. And after kibitzing with Kissinger and pumping up Schultz, he retires to his study, lined wall to wall with the Western canon in tooled leather. Resting in his armchair, he does battle with Rushdie, sympathizes with Aeschylus, teaches Plato a lesson, and smiles skeptically at Heidegger. He is heir to Leibniz, the last man who knew everything, and our energetic clone of Mycroft Holmes.
At least, this is the feeling you get listening to the undergraduates who’ve encountered Hill in Directed Studies seminars at Yale, where he is diplomat-in-residence, or dared to enroll in the famous “Grand Strategies” class taught with historians Paul Kennedy and John Lewis Gaddis. Molly Worthen, who wrote “Charles Hill is God” inside the cover of her spiral bound notebook when she was at Yale, worked her passion for the man up into a biography, The Man on Whom Nothing Was Lost, which appeared in 2005. A biography that chronicled Hill’s exploits as speech writer for Henry Kissinger and executive aide to George P. Schultz, the book also gave readers a peek into the exclusive “Grand Strategies” class, as Hill and his colleagues guided the lucky few across through the Western canon coupled with 3,000 years of political history.
Now, we readers not fortunate enough to have been taught by Hill in college can claim the next best thing: Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order. A class-in-a-book, Hill’s ethos canned, Grand Strategies tackles the same problems as the seminar, presenting the broad sweep of political history as it has appeared in literature.
Unfortunately for the readers eager to hold the entire world in their hands, to attain what John Lewis Gaddis calls Hill’s “Clausewitzian coup d’oeil,” Grand Strategies is a pretty bad book. Its thesis is muddy, its exposition is plodding, and its argument is scant and underdeveloped.
Hill’s trouble is not a want of ideology. He is a conservative, of the “realist” camp in international affairs. The story he tells about the state system is broadly realist—how it rose out of our chaotic, tribal past, was solidified by the Treaty of Westphalia and imposed an order on the world, how it was maintained by genius diplomats and statesmen like Talleyrand and Richelieu, threatened by the French revolution, then communism, now radical Islam, and undermined from within by an Enlightenment disdain for the wisdom of tradition. It is a moral tale with a lesson to impart: nations must rediscover the virtues of the state system if they wish to survive.
This is not a story that every reader will happily endorse. Hill’s politics are certainly no bar to providing insights into the Great Books, but by the end of Grand Strategies there is a sense that it is precisely because of these convictions about international affairs that Hill’s conception of the canon is so unpersuasive. His book embodies two distinct and distinctly conservative positions: on the one hand it is a defense of the Western canon against academic specialization and the assaults on “Dead White Males” that have been waged since the 1960s; on the other hand it is a skeptic’s take on high-minded, idealistic approaches to international politics. As much as these positions are indeed conservative in their own ways, they are unhappy bedfellows. The hallmark of the Western canon is to force readers to consider perennial human questions—what is the good? What is justice? How should I live? The hallmark of Realpolitik is to ignore these considerations entirely. In writing a story about the Great Books that is also a realist story of the state system, Hill has assigned himself an impossible task. And it shows.
None of this is immediately apparent, however, and Grand Strategies begins auspiciously enough. Hill’s historical sweep is certainly grand—the book moves chronologically through its examination of central works of literature from Homer to Rushdie—and its promise great. Hill undertakes not just an examination of politics as it appears in some canonical books, but also an argument for the importance of literature for thinking about statecraft itself. “Statesmen,” Hill writes, “have looked at literature not only as another source of strategic insight, but as a unique intellectual endeavor.” This is a bold and exciting thesis. Unfortunately, Hill never gets clear on what it amounts to. The prologue to Grand Strategies offers many theses, quickly and cryptically stated, so that understanding Hill’s main point is no easy task.
He explains, for one thing, how the strategist Paul Nitze’s voracious reading enabled him to entertain many opposed ideas and view conflicts from more angles than the less erudite statesman. Yet another of literature’s virtues, he continues, is that it “reveals the sources and motivations behind acceptance of the state as the basic unit of world affairs.” But then, most vaguely, he remarks:
To be more specific about why literary insight is essential for statecraft, both endeavors are concerned with important questions that are only partly accessible to rational thought…. A virtue of the books examined here is that, while not slighting rational thought, they manage to convey the inchoate aspects of affairs within and between states to attentive readers.
How does one interpret this without writing a philosophy dissertation? The suggestion seems to be that reading hones the intuition, teaching us how to think through concrete problems of politics not by searching for rules or abstract principles to follow, but by spending time in the company of seasoned experts and going through fictional test runs. Lofty connections are being made between effective statecraft and deep reading, but they are all underdeveloped at best, and Hill never does much in the course of Grand Strategies to shore them up.
What is clear, however, is that Hill will advance his story largely through summaries of the Great Books. The chapters follow a model, beginning usually with a bit of historical background before jumping head on into a summary of Great Book under discussion. After awhile, the summaries start to feel endless. The bulk of Grand Strategies is plot synopses, as Hill offers up potted versions of his entire syllabus: Aeschylus’ Oresteia, Virgil’s Aeneid, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Mann’s Magic Mountain, Conrad’s The Secret Agent, T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, etc., ad infinitum. (The reading of the summaries is slow because it’s nearly impossible to distinguish between what’s important and what’s trivial in Hill’s recapitulations. Readers plod along with mounting anxiety that if they are not retaining absolutely every last word, they are missing the most important part of what Hill is trying to convey.)
Then, the shock: Hill’s interpretations arrive. Here is an example of the sort of wisdom that Hill draws from the Great Books, a paragraph explaining the import of Conrad’s The Secret Agent:
The question, Conrad implies, is whether civilization is capable of defending itself against pure evil in the form of terrorism when it is so immersed in its own weaknesses, delusions, and contradictions. For Hobbes, fear of violent death underlay the social contract and called political community into being to grant the individual basic security. Hobbes’s social contract became the theoretical foundation stone of modern society. In Conrad, the terrorist’s infatuation with death overturns this foundation of civilization.
Or, in an even more condensed form, about Grimmelshausen’s Adventures of Simplicissimus: “Simplicissimus and Jupiter—polar opposites—offer responses to an incoherent world, both equally futile: impotent realism and impossible idealism.”
Anyone who absorbed Hill’s prologue, as he held forth on the deep importance of literature for politics, anyone in the process of slogging through interminable plot summaries in search of some hermeneutic gold, is bound to be taken aback when Hill makes observations like these. Is this really what he was driving at when he said literature was important for politics—that one could skim morals about politics off of the books? The conclusions about Conrad and Grimmelshausen are probably apt, though they are also clearly cherry-picked to suit his story about the international state system. But if this were all there was to literature’s relationship to politics, why read the books? Why not just read Hill’s summaries? Why not just read SparkNotes, which are free?
It is hard to say, since Hill’s book mostly piles up pat morals, rarely deviating from the trifecta of plot summary-moral-potted history. Paradise Lost rehearses conflicting strategies of tempering and accumulating power. Don Quixote exemplifies the disenchantment of the modern world. Gulliver’s Travels demonstrates the folly of modern thinkers who neglect ancient political thought. Shakespeare’s The Tempest is a pastiche of Old World sources that show how Europe tried to grapple with the diversity. Robinson Crusoe pits the political realist against anarchy. Dostoyevsky shows how modernity loses its way when gives up the sovereignty of states in favor of universal political ambitions. Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago shows how communism could not change the most important parts of Russian life. Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain wonders whether a civilization that can only regard its triumphs with ironic distance can survive. And so forth, and so on.
Hill’s handling of philosophical texts is, unfortunately, substantially worse than his handling of narrative works. Here, it might be expected that Hill would engage with the ideas of the thinkers he discusses. His book is about a host of normative questions regarding statecraft—How should we think about statecraft? What sort of claims do individuals have against the state? What sort of international order should we have? How should we deal with future threats to this international order?—which are addressed by the thinkers he treats, including Grotius, Hobbes, Locke, and Kant.
However, Hill has an idiosyncratic notion of how philosophy fits into the Great Books picture. “[S]ome major works conventionally catalogued as nonfiction have jumped over the methodological walls to become ‘fellow-travelers’ of literature,” Hill writes in the prologue. “Almost every truly great work of ‘nonfiction’ has achieved its extra level of superiority by soaring above and beyond factual analysis.” What this means for philosophy is unclear. Certainly there are philosophers who are consummate stylists—Plato, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche especially—but good style is only contingently associated with good argument. (Kant is supremely imaginative in argument, supremely turgid in style.) And it is natural to think that philosophy is concerned primarily with something different than, say, fiction is—with abstract reasoning rather than storytelling. What could Hill be trying to achieve by suggesting that the works of philosophy he wants to discuss should be lumped in with all of the more narrative works under the heading “literature”?
As it turns out, Hill doesn’t mean very much by it. Here is a typical example of Hill’s treatment of philosophy, in a discussion of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan:
Hobbes’s theory of the state derived less from revelation or reason than from his sense of human psychological drives and passions. To Hobbes a person’s regard for safety and well-being come first, and generates a constant striving for power and rank as protection from a dangerous world. Monarchy imposes order on the human maelstrom. The most chaotic form of polity, and thus the worst, is democracy. Thucydides’ narrative makes clear his admiration for Pericles, the leader of democratic Athens.
Hill is not concerned here with some particularly literary element in the writing, nor does he make any effort to engage with Hobbes’s arguments. The reason that he yokes Leviathan with Cervantes and Shakespeare in his survey of literature is that he is able to make them synchronize with his theories of statecraft. For that thesis, he needs an antithesis, and so he presents Rousseau:
Here were the foundations for the idea, later developed not in witty insouciance but all grim earnestness, that all of Western civilization is an oppressive fraud that some “Maximum Leader” or “Great Helmsman” will be needed to steer The People toward utopia on earth. And those who disagree? Well, as Rousseau writes in his Social Contract, they “will be forced to be free.” Humanity has been plagued by this version of the grand strategy idea ever since Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote it down, in all his charmingly lighthearted, smiling, and cynical self-satisfaction.
This is a maddeningly superficial way to treat the one of the enduring Western thinkers. Not only does Hill offer a pretty uncharitable summary of Rousseau, he has nothing to say about the cogency of Rousseau’s arguments. He just gives him a thumbs-down because his ideas threaten the Westphalian state system. This is par for the course in Grand Strategies, so Hill’s discussion of philosophers will only be gratifying to those readers who already share his political convictions.
This is where the conflict between Hill’s competing conservative ideologies is most sharp, and where his politics become most apparent to the reader. If the problems of Grand Strategies were only rooted in its reductive summaries, the book would be no better or worse than any other tedious survey text. The fact that philosophers’ conclusions are judged, though, on the compatibility of their conclusions to Hill’s worldview makes clear the extent to which the Great Books are valuable in Hill’s eyes. There is a struggle in Grand Strategies between Hill the diplomat and Hill the scholar, between Hill’s praise for Locke and Hill’s praise for Talleyrand, and it is no accident that Hill is loathe to reconstruct Locke’s arguments, but can explain in detail why Talleyrand is a great statesman. Hill is an amateur scholar but a career diplomat, and when push comes to shove, it is the practical man of action, not the theoretician or observer of human nature, that he will throw in with.
This fact—that Hill is at base a doer, not a thinker—also becomes quite clear in a number of instances where his discussions of texts stop being interpretations and turn into straightforward policy lectures, with the books serving as mere jumping off points. So, in the course of discussing The Eumeides, Hill writes,
Irrevocably, capital punishment will from this point forward be a matter for the state to decide in accordance with open procedures centered on the jury. This makes the death penalty the foundation of civilization, for only when a victim’s kin are convinced that the state will exact justice in response to murder will they entrust that power to the state. The state may make capital punishment extremely rare, but to abolish it would undermine that contract between the people and their government. Revenge is replaced by the rule of law, which must include at least the possibility of imposing the death penalty for capital crimes. John Locke would later make clear the foundational importance of this compact. The rights that individuals cede to the state are revocable if the government fails to perform the responsibilities entrusted to it. But the right to punish under the law is not revocable, but “wholly given up.”
This is neither explication nor interpretation. It is Hill’s own assessment of how states ought to be run. But Hill’s argumentation for such an assessment ranges from opaque to nonexistent. As a matter of fact, only states can now kill people and get away with it, and only juries pass judgment on guilt, but why is it supposed to be true for all time that people will only stop taking revenge into their own hands if they are certain that the state will do it for them? (This is of course empirically refuted by the fact that vigilante revenge killings do not pose a significant problem to the large portions of the developed world that have abolished the death penalty.) What is the nature of the contract between state and its citizens, and why would refusing to gratify primal revenge urges violate it? In what sense is this a “responsibility” of the government? Dropping John Locke’s name adds authority, but what are his arguments and are they any good? This is perhaps how a seasoned diplomat passes advice on to the next generation, but it is not how an intellectually engaged person teaches people how to approaches the richness of the Western canon. Normative insinuations, from glib ruminations on the notion of free will to a sentimental remembrance of George Schultz’s controversial speech to PEN International, crop up throughout the text, and since they are presented largely without coherent argument, they have the distinctive feeling of preaching. When push comes to shove, Hill is more concerned with his realist political judgments then with the pull of the Great Books themselves.
The conclusion to Grand Strategies does little to solve any of these problems. Hill wraps up his story about the Westphalian state system with a grand hurrah, typical in its mixture of mystery and brazen assertion. “A sacral nature must infuse world order if it is to be legitimate,” he tells us. “That order is not to be identified with a particular social system, but to be legitimate, the system at least must hint at the underlying divinely founded order. The modern Westphalian system was conceived when such was the case, but with the Enlightenment’s addition of secularism, science, reason, and democracy, the system increasingly spurned, then forgot, its legitimizing sources of authority.” A sacral order? Underlying divinely founded order? This is all news to readers of Grand Strategies, as the book has mentioned no such order to this point. Beneath the thick mystical rhetoric, what Hill actually thinks needs to be done to bolster the Westphalian state is anyone’s guess. He makes a few more nods to his undeveloped thesis about literature, asserting that the “international world of states and their modern system is a literary realm” and “only the word can heal the Faustian ravages of the modern age.” Hill has told us that literature is important and imbued us with his political wisdom, but what exactly reading and thinking through the Great Books has to do with this remains a mystery.
Grand Strategies leaves the reader with a nagging question: how could Hill’s cluttered and preachy reading of the canon inspire so many students? Part of it has to do with Hill’s classroom persona, no doubt, which can’t be replicated on the page. (Replacing potted summaries with an actual reading of the canon also doesn’t hurt.) But a large part of it has to do with the appeal of the Great Books curriculum itself. Again, in her biography, Molly Worthen puts her finger on that aspect of Hill’s appeal: “This is precisely what is appealing and noble about Charlie: he is a man of idea who exists above the fray,” she writes, “who is better suited to keep company with Henry Adams or Ralph Waldo Emerson than with most modern-day academics. His example is empowering for college students. It is enchanting to believe that the realm of ideas, our world in the classroom, is where the power lies.”
This view of the Great Books standing for traditional culture against the pedestrian empirical pursuits of the natural and social sciences, as well as the ever more specialized humanities, echoes through Grand Strategies, appearing overtly in Hill’s disdain for the emphasis on quantitative methods in contemporary political science. His priorities strike a nerve. At the end of the day, what is really important for a human life is to be able to have an intelligent conversation about politics, ethics, literature, history, science, religion, the arts, and so on. Hill has hit on something here and his popularity attests to the widespread desire to think through the big, meaty ideas.
This is the lure of the Great Books education. But after reading Grand Strategies, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that such pursuits are actually subordinate to Hill’s real interests, which have to do with leveraging ideas into power. In his essay “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids,” Richard Rorty remembered the pain with which he had to learn that his love of flowers and his passion for social justice – his aesthetic and political ideals – could not be unified in a single system. Charles Hill hasn’t learned this lesson, and Grand Strategies is the offspring of an unhappy marriage of ideals. And when politics and ideas clash, it’s always the ideas that go by the wayside. Worthen recalls a disgruntled student’s complaints about Hill: “He has a stronger agenda than he lets on … and if you disagree, his answer is, ‘But this is the way things work in the real world.’”
“This is the way things work in the real world.” That line is the subtext of Grand Strategies. But the dogma leaves one of the primary tasks of reflective intelligence out of the picture—wondering whether the way things are is the way they ought to be. In avoiding such reflection, Hill is more like his social science colleagues than he knows. He shares their aversion to theorizing about goodness and evil, like the economist who is unwilling to consider that people’s preferences are sometimes just bad. In a final irony, this fundamental similarity between Hill and the social scientists makes it increasingly unlikely that he will convince them to reconsider their skepticism about the big issues. It is easy to imagine those social scientists whose zeal Hill disparages dipping into this book, or even poking their head into Hill’s class, and thinking, “Well, if pontificating is all there is to theorizing, I’m not missing much.”
Yet broad, challenging thinking about values is alive in the humanities—in Great Books courses that don’t see the canon as instrumentally useful, in literature courses where conflicting interpretations of important novels are the source of heated debate, and in history courses where the origins and prospects of the Westphalian system are examined in detail. It exists especially in the wealth of political thought spawned John Rawls’s Theory of Justice, which was a catalyst for very serious contributions from the left and the right. Charles Hill has nothing to say about these enduring debates on the way things ought to be, though the thinkers engaged in them carry a torch lit by Hobbes and Kant. If Hill is God, he is a cold, inscrutable god, whose answer to his supplicants’ cries is a shrug and soft murmur: “That’s just the way things have to be.”
Andrew Flynn is a writer and editor living in New York