Out of Virtue, Greatness: Washington as Aristotle's Magnanimous Man | Dr. Jose Yulo | July 4, 2007 | IgnatiusInsight.comOut of Virtue, Greatness: Washington as Aristotle's Magnanimous Man | Dr. Jose Yulo | July 4, 2007


"Of all the advantages that accrue from philosophy, these I reckon the chiefest. To bear prosperity like a gentleman is the mark of a man, to deprecate envy the mark of a disciplined character, to rise superior to pleasure by reason the mark of a sage, to govern anger the mark of an extraordinary man. But perfect men I regard as those who are able to mingle and fuse political capacity with philosophy." -- Plutarch

"In Aristotelian terms, the good leader must have ethos, pathos and logos. The ethos is his moral character, the source of his ability to persuade. The pathos is his ability to touch feelings, to move people emotionally. The logos is his ability to give solid reasons for an action, to move people intellectually." -- Mortimer Adler

In every human generation, especially in times when the national identity is rent by factions and foes within and without, it becomes common practice to turn to the august dawn of a people's founders. Few, if any, of this particular nation's early leaders match the awe with which history accords to the first American President, George Washington.

Deemed by historians America's Cincinnatus, Washington's life and actions uncannily emulated the early Roman statesman's classic virtue. After serving as one of republican Rome's consuls, Cincinnatus was called on not once, but twice to the office of dictator. The position then was radically different from the modern usage of the term. In essence, it was an emergency, temporary office, during which one man could deal, with streamlined efficiency, with the threats that beset his city. Cincinnatus, apart from his successes in this office, was most noted by the historian Livy for what he did after victory was won, returning near absolute power and retiring to a quiet farming life shortly thereafter.

In his recent book Revolutionary Characters (Penguin, 2006), Brown University historian Gordon S. Wood wrote of Washington's parallel to the tale by Livy. In contrast to lesser political figures both ancient and modern, Washington did not feel the need to embellish upon his reputation. Quoting from a French source, Wood recounted that the general "...speaks of the American War, and of his victories, as of things in which he had no direction. This modesty only added to his gravity and severity." No act was perhaps as symbolic of Washington's fabled "disinterested" virtue than the surrender of his sword to Congress shortly following the official cessation of the Revolutionary War in December of 1873. Wood related the magnitude of such observance of duty: "It was extraordinary; a victorious general's surrendering his arms and returning to his farm was unprecedented in modern times. Cromwell, William of Orange, Marlborough--all had sought political rewards commensurate with their military achievements."

What struck me about Wood's analysis of the nation's first leader was the particular way in which Washington's character affected the above-mentioned mystique of his decisions and actions. As Wood put it, "Washington's genius, Washington's greatness, lay in his character." The President can, as Wood posited, lay claim to being the United States' first national, if not classical, hero by virtue of this.

It is in inspecting this classical character that one sees not only the rustic nobility of republican Roman duty and sacrifice, but trappings from another foundation of Western civilization. The Greek age, which followed the Peloponnesian War and preceded Alexander's attempts at Hellenization, featured particularly robust and profound thought on the nature of a virtuous character. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle each took up the burden of delineating the parameters of rectitude in an epoch between two tumultuous periods of war and conquest. These periods saw Greece's famed standards of moderation and right willingly abandoned by its citizens--citizens frenzied with fraternal strife on one hand and corrupted by foreign decadence on the other. Aristotle, being the last of this philosophical generation, laid down his observations on the topic of virtue and character in his Nichomachean Ethics.

In what ways do the great Greek philosopher's findings parallel Wood's analysis of Washington's character? First, and not coincidentally, the ideal Aristotle wrote of which most conformed to the paradigm set forth by Washington was that of the "proud," "great-souled," or "magnanimous" man. One of the telltale characteristics of the magnanimous man--a man Aristotle felt deserved the highest of all prizes--was his oftentimes haughty and aloof nature, "Hence proud men are thought to be disdainful." Aristotle explained the purpose of this reticence as a response to the perpetually transitory travails of life, travails prone to buckle lesser men to unseemly displays of emotion and abandon.

Likewise, Washington bore his considerable gravitas buttressed by walls of stoic stone. As Wood wrote, "Despite the continued popularity of Parson Weems's biographical attempt to humanize Washington, the great man remained distant and unapproachable, almost unreal and unhuman." Wood described this otherworldly ethos as incomprehensible to modern sensibilities. It is not too far a stretch to assume it awed the President's contemporaries as well. Ultimately, this was traced by the historian to Washington's being a product of the "pre-egalitarian world of the eighteenth century," a century which lionized exalted military stature and reputation.

As Aristotle was a philosopher who emphasized the metaphysical concept of purpose, this ideal is also woven throughout his ethical study. The magnanimous man then, above all other things, sought out honor as his purpose and end: "It is chiefly with honours and dishonours, then, that the proud man is concerned..." Within this spectrum, the magnanimous man grew conscious of precisely where and from whom he received his honors. Since he occupied a solitary, elevated pedestal by virtue of his stature, he could not welcome honors and praise from peers. Yet, he did accept accolades from "good men" since "they have nothing greater to bestow on him." In contrast, the magnanimous man directly, or indirectly sought to foster hierarchical relationships by disdaining "honour from casual people and on trifling grounds."

Washington, like most of his contemporaries, was concerned with this Aristotelian end. "Honor was the esteem in which they were held..." Wood explained, "To have honor across space and time was to have fame, and fame was what the founders were after, Washington above all." Because of his accomplishments, Washington was the first of the founding generation to achieve this vaunted status. Nevertheless, he carefully cultivated his image. According to Wood, it was this selfsame concern which finally pushed a reluctant Washington to attend the Philadelphia Convention of 1787: "What finally convinced Washington...was the fear that people might think he wanted the government to fail so that he could then manage a military takeover."

In this, the then general exhibited his Aristotelian disdain for "trifling grounds." What makes this most remarkable was that for Washington, the seeking of power was somehow beneath and the antithesis of his classical reputation. Centuries before, Machiavelli would instruct his patron prince that power should be seen as the ultimate good, or end to political practice. Most modern (and postmodern thought), subsisting in the vacuum created by the renunciation of virtue, is given to this utilitarian dictum. Yet, here is Washington, schooled in fine Greek form, viewing power as Aristotle viewed it, "Power and wealth are desirable for the sake of honour..." As the logic follows, this perspective of lowering power beneath honor seems only possible when virtue, or goodness, is part of the rich fabric of a leader's identity.

Aristotle stated as much when he elaborated on the magnanimous man's moral state: "Now the proud man...must be good in the highest degree; for the better man always deserves more, and the best man most." Considering current political thought, this Greek ideal appears more distant than the millennia already allow. As stated already, power in contemporary politics is seen as an end, therefore its attainment is paramount, and often at the expense of virtue. Aristotle reminds his reader of an alternative, a more real and natural relationship--that of the glory gained not by winning power, but by serving virtue.

Countless despots in the dusty annals of world history have sought to be great men. What made Washington unique was that he became a great man while not abandoning being a good man. Long before the stirrings of the abolitionist movement awoke New England, Washington the Virginian foresaw slavery's end. According to Wood, "By the time he returned to Mount Vernon at the end of the war, he had concluded that slavery needed to be abolished ... because it violated everything the Revolution was about." This may not surprise historians as much as the lay public since Washington had already displayed an open mindedness towards race in his having "led a racially integrated army composed of as many a five thousand African American soldiers."

What does surprise was the sentiment behind the general's views toward slavery, views which deviated starkly from the merely political. During his presidency in 1794, Washington mulled over liberating "a certain species of property which I possess, very repugnantly to my own feelings." Going beyond a flawed, politically correct analysis of such turn of phrase, one has to wonder as to why the President felt so.

Over sixty years before the Dred Scott case recognized African Americans as non-citizens, the most powerful man in the nation privately, and we can only assume honestly, was asserting the injustice of slavery. This feeling can perhaps be best explained by a sense of virtue within the President, virtue which enabled him to see the vice inherent in bondage, and which prodded him to act on his conviction. Six months before his death, Washington in the writing of his will, laid provisions to free his three hundred slaves at the point of his wife's passing. In this action, Wood stressed "he did not just throw his slaves out into the world." Instead, Washington made clear that juvenile and elderly slaves ought to be provided for by means of literacy, and vocational training.

For all of these reasons, Washington appears closer and closer to the Aristotelian ideal, as he does to the republican Roman. It should not go unmentioned here that Aristotle was no champion of abolition himself, believing that some men were by their natures slaves. Yet the Greek, like his predecessors Socrates and Plato, saw that the most pathetic form of slavery was when one was without virtue, and thus a slave to himself. Washington certainly did not fall into this category.

What is almost tragic however, in an almost Greek paradigm, was how Wood related the legacy of the founding generation, most especially Washington. This generation "had succeeded only too well in promoting democracy, and equality among ordinary people; indeed, they succeeded in preventing any duplication of themselves." Poetically following in the footsteps of their revered heroes such as Socrates, Cicero, and Cato, men who achieved greatness because of their virtue, the founders leave to future generations gifts and examples seldom understood or worse, unappreciated. None here match the ethos of Washington, "an extraordinary man who made it possible for ordinary men to rule."

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Jose Yulo, Ed.D. teaches courses on philosophy, western civilization, United States history, and public speaking at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. He has a Doctorate in Education from the University of San Francisco, with an emphasis on the philosophy of education. He also holds a Master's degree in political communication from Emerson College in Boston, as well as a Bachelor's degree in the classical liberal arts from St. John's College in Annapolis, MD.

Originally from Manila in the Philippines, his research interests lie in Greek philosophy, the histories of Greek and Roman politics and warfare, and the literature of J. R. R. Tolkien. He has written several articles for IgnatiusInsight.com.

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