Adam Kirsch, whose poetry I admire, has a surprisingly muddled argument on the value of great books for world leaders in a recent article for The New Republic. Responding to Charles Hill’s argument in Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order that great books tutor leaders in statecraft, Kirsch writes that literature is, in fact, “a very dubious basis for political leadership.”
Kirsch is right, of course, that such texts are hardly sufficient for forming political leaders (and I doubt that this is Hill’s point either); however, he goes on to argue that they are unhelpful in any real way because (1) classical texts like The Iliad glorify “imperialism and conquest,” teaching us, Kirsch writes with breezy simplicity, “to admire what our reason would condemn,” (2) such texts often offer impractical advice and tend to mystify leadership, and (3) literary texts, whose meaning is “always interpretable,” “can be used to support many different political beliefs and courses of action.”
With that, out go The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, Henry V, and all other canonical texts of Western literature, as if these texts have nothing to say to world leaders regarding the dangers of hubris, the value of perseverance or the strength (and dangers) of trust. I especially like the touch of conflating “our reason” with reason tout court and the wonderful illogic of the statement that because such texts can be abused by world leaders they are somehow useless.
I would not want to reduce the value of literary works to their relative wisdom alone, nor would I argue that such texts are necessary for forming good political leaders, but Kirsch’s response is over-the-top. If modern politicians haven’t learned much from the classics, it seems strange, to say the least, to blame the texts themselves and not the politicians.