I thank him for the compliment, but know well that by my age, Churchill had already established his reason d'etre. I have miles to go before I can live up to his legacy.
Nevertheless, I most recently wrote an academic essay on Winston Churchill for my independent study with Professor Harry V. Jaffa, whose book of essays on Churchill influenced a little of my thinking, I hope you like it. If not, let me know. I think I may be on to something when I look at Churchill's selective use of French phrases. (As many of you know, and few of you actually believe, I have been speaking, reading, and writing French since I was a young boy.)
Churchill: The Statesman as Teacher by Charles C. Johnson
The duty of the statesman is to teach, but not all teachers are the best of students. Education, coming from the Latin educere, means to draw out. Every student, since at least the days of the Republic, was to be taught, though some were among the elect and more deserving of resources. For the teacher of great men, one wonders how one must draw it out. And then for other men, one must simply let them unchain that ambition within themselves, hoping all the while that a proper veneration for the things that are good, might take hold.
As a boy, Churchill played often and conscientiously with his tin soldiers, never knowing that one day, as a minister and later, as a prime minister, he might offer “blood, sweat, toil, and tears” as he moved about ships, steel, and men to save Europe from the savagery that was Nazism. Even then, Churchill understood the importance of the ancients. “Perhaps if I had been introduced to the ancients through their history and custom,” he writes in My Early Life, “instead of through their grammar and syntax, I might have had a better record [learning their languages.]”1 Some men must be disciplined with the rigors of coursework; others, simply unleashed to the world from which they can find their lessons. Churchill, who fought in or was present at, nearly fifteen battles on four continents, learned from the brutal Himalayas and the River War, that there were savages in this world, and that Western Civilization with all its flaws, has kept us from being among their lot.2
Sometimes the best of teachers are the most dilettante of students, choosing as their schoolhouse the world of nature – the school of hard knocks – rather than the brick and mortar of prep school and exams. But Churchill, acutely aware of his importance to coming generations, began preparing the next generation for the tasks which lay ahead. The dedication for My Early Life reveals much: “To a New Generation.” We should not dismiss this dedication as the mere ambition of a young man, for all throughout Churchill gives advice to the generation to come.
It is no accident that his most famous speeches occur at the moment when a lesson plan is most needed and more, often than not, at a school. In the twilight of his life, Churchill, as elder statesman, continued to teach, joking after receiving yet another honorary doctorate that “No one ever passed so few examinations and received so many degrees.” If Churchill had failed exams as a school boy, his resolve, though tested throughout the war, never wavered. He served as the example of the kind of man he hoped the next generation would emulate. Two of his finest speeches, “Never Give In,” delivered at the nadir of the Second World War at his alma mater, Harrow School, and “The Iron Curtain,” delivered at Fulton, Missouri, counseling against the spread of Bolshevism. That former evil, acknowledged and mentioned to President Roosevelt, had gone unchecked and the Soviets had been allowed to capture much of Eastern Europe. Up until the end, he was teaching and telling his citizens and the Western World, the truth. Whether they would receive it or not remained an opening question. Indeed, at the time in which he wrote the Iron Curtain Speech, it was vilified. In London, The Times, thought that democracy and communism “had much to learn from one another,” while the Chicago Sun warned of Churchill’s “poisonous doctrines.” Churchill took it in stride, writing to Governor Thomas Dewey some nine months later, “If I had made the Fulton speech today it would be criticised as consisting of platitudes.”
And yet, Churchill always stood ready to teach the young the importance of the virtues of courage. In autumn 1935, the future Lord Longford and three promising youngsters visited the 61-year-old Churchill at his estate. “If the Germans are already as strong as you say,” Longford asked, “what could we do if they landed here?” “That should not prove an insoluble conundrum,” Churchill explained gravely. “We are here five able-bodied men. The armoury at our disposal is not perhaps very modern, but none of us would be without a weapon. We should sally forth. I should venture to assume the responsibilities of command. If the worst came to the worst, we should sell our lives dearly. Whatever the outcome, I feel confident we should render a good account of ourselves.”
The Churchill of World War II, that rallied a nation and then the world, believed in nothing less than the virtues. He understood, as he put it in My Early Life that, “After all, a man’s Life must be nailed to a cross either of Thought or Action.” Churchill, though, sought both Thought and Action, resolving that the two should reinforce one another, and put western civilization on sure footing. But if Churchill appears to have a solid grasp of politics, philosophy, and history from his readings, his views on religion and death are all the more intriguing, given how often he cheated death and ignored religion. In the section of My Early Life, the section to take up this question is one of the few sections in Churchill’s writings where he writes in questions, rather than declarative sentences, but his summation is pure natural law.
In the regiment we sometimes used to argue questions like ‘Whether we should again in another world after this was over?’ ‘Whether we have ever lived before?’ ‘Whether some high intelligence is looking after the world or whether things are just drifting on anyhow?’ There was general agreement that if you tried your best to live an honourable life and did your duty and were faithful to friends and not unkind to the weak and poor, it did not matter much what you believed or disbelieved. All would come out right. This is what would nowadays I suppose be called ‘The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness.” (“Education at Bangalore,” My Early Life, p. 112)
Here we can best see Churchill thinking, as all statesmen do, about the proper relationship of religion to the body politic. He even follows it up with a view of the utility of the Christian religion to poor and to women, in words that could just as easily have been written by Machiavelli. And while Churchill flirts with “a violent and aggressive anti-religious phase,” he nevertheless returns to a kind of Pascalian consumption of God – le coeur a ses raison, que la raison ne connaît pas, especially when confronted with a very real danger.
It seemed to me that it would be very foolish to discard the reasons of the heart for those of the head. Indeed I could not see why I should not enjoy them both. I did not worry about the inconsistency of thinking one way and believing the other. It seemed good to let the mind explore so far as it could the paths of thought and logic, and also good to pray for help and succour, and be thankful when they came.
Both reason and revelation are necessary for the citizen, Churchill argues, but at the same time, argues against a kind of nihilistic egoism: “The idea that nothing is true except what we comprehend is silly, and that which our minds cannot reconcile are mutually destructive, sillier still.” Instead, Churchill, drawing from nature, believes in a kind of cyclical universe:
Thus the beaver builds his dam, and thus when his fishing is about to begin, comes the flood and sweeps his work and luck and fish away together. So he has to begin again.
Ministerial posts would come and go, as they do, because the role of the statesman is both continuous, but also impermanent. He concerns himself with the day to day, while teaching the timeless.
Churchill’s study of nature and history takes him to the study of great men, such as Lord Cromer, who lives up to the French aphorism, ‘On ne règne sur les âmes que par le calme.”3 We don’t reign on souls, but through calm. As with the philosopher king, Churchill reminds us that the need of such a stoic leader is great, but that their quantity is few, “We do not see his like nowadays, though our need is grave.”
This resoluteness served Churchill well, but it also had to be met by his own audacity and courage: Churchill says before scaling the wall in the Boer Prisoner of War camp, “tousjours de l’audace.” Always audacity. Aside from being the close cousin of the virtue, courage, this audacity would help guard against the sudden danger in which Churchill found himself. His advice, in his essay, “A Second Choice,” is be in “accordance with [the] deepest feeling with all that recklessness in so doing which belongs to youth and is indeed the glory of youth and its most formidable quality.”
Churchill believed that youth should avail itself of its impulsiveness. “When I have desired to do or say anything and have refrained therefore from prudence, slothfulness or being dissuaded by others, I have always felt ashamed of myself at the time…” Chance – or providence – would carry you through, and if it did not, well, then, dying doing one’s duty was a fine way to die. He was found of La Fontaine’s quotation, “On recontre sa destinée souvent par des chemins qu’on prend pour l’éviter.” One often discovers one’s destiny by the paths we take to avoid it. If Churchill has one chief criticism of the modern age, it is that that audacity that compelled him and others to be great men, is being bred out by the times, by scientific progress, by mass effects, and the communist impulse. This struck Churchill as horrific, found as he was, of reminding people of his greatness. When his loyal valet protested, “You were rude to me, sir,” Churchill paused and said, “Yes, but I am a great man.” Great men, though, were on the wane, if the forces of history gave indication.
Churchill thought that essentially nihilistic Science would change the very nature of what it meant to be human. We would become the robots and automatons of Rossum’s Universal Robots – mindless, uniform, and dangerous to human freedom.
There seems little doubt that it will be possible to carry out in artificial surroundings the entire cycle which now leads to the birth of a child. . . . A being might be produced capable of tending a machine but without other ambitions. . . . Might not the Union of Soviet Republics armed with all the power of science find it in harmony with all their aims to produce a race adapted to mechanical tasks with no other ideas but to obey the Communist State?
This robot would be a return to a more barbaric man; indeed, it would be as if man himself had become like the “White Ant,” which unlike the beehive, has no purpose – no honey – save the preservation of the collective. Churchill gives an account of how that collective came to pass. “War became a collective enterprise,” after man formed in tribes, villages and governments, but only now in the beginnings of the twentieth century had an emergent “full collective consciousness enabled enterprises of slaughter to be planned and executed upon a scale and with a perseverance never before imagined.”
Resisting this spirit would be the animating purpose of great men, teaching their peoples of its folly, whether it take the form of Nazism or Bolshevism. Human nature is more intractable, more nuanced, than ant-nature, Churchill reminds us, because it recognizes that man has a special glory. For that reason, the Bolshevist society must necessarily be the most oppressive as it tries to erase the “distinction of individuals.” The problem, unfortunately, isn’t only a problem of the Soviet Union. Unless properly guided by these leaders, democracy, too, seems incapable of resisting that communist impulse:
“Democratic governments drift the line of least resistance, taking short views, paying their way with sops and doles, and smoothing their path with pleasant-sounding platitudes… Only the Communists have a plan and a gospel. It Is a plan fatal to personal freedom and a gospel founded upon Hate.”
The damage of mass effects and mass culture, while lesser in Great Britain, the United States, Germany, and France than in the Soviet Union, is nonetheless responsible for those nations steady decline.
The great emancipated nations seem to have become largely independent of famous guides and guardians. They no longer rely upon the Hero, the Commander, of the Teacher as they did in bygone rugged ages, or as the less advanced peoples do today.
Such a lack of distinction and greatness in those democracies has led to a squandering of the accumulated wisdom and treasure of the past as the Napoleons of their day have become the “managers of a stock-market or stock-yards.” Western civilization has become alien to itself. Only a recovery of the ancient virtues and of a spirit of greatness might be capable of restoring mankind to its former greatness and ward off the dangers of annihilation: “Without an equal growth of Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love, Science herself may destroy all that makes human life majestic and tolerable.” Science had unlimited promise, but also unlimited peril, but if wielded in the right hands, we may yet postpone the day of destruction and Armageddon. “Mankind has never been in this position before,” Churchill writes in “Shall We All Commit Suicide?” But it needn’t be feared if proper precautions are made through education. While we may “miss our giants,” there may be hope yet.
Projects undreamed-of by past generations will absorb our immediate descendants; forces terrific and devastating will be in their hands; comforts, activities, amenities, pleasures will crowd upon them, but their hearts will ache, their lives will be barren, if they have not a vision above material things.
It is the duty of the statesman to teach his citizens what those things greater than material things are and what makes them worthy of defense. And in this lesson, Churchill was the greatest of teachers, but even here his counsel often fell upon deaf ears. While it “is not in our power to anticipate our destiny,” as he put it before the House of Commons, the statesman can rally the people to the cause by arming the people with the Truth. Appealing to a higher truth, Churchill hoped he might rally a people. In his first radio address, he quoted Maccabees 3:58-60:
"Today is Trinity Sunday. Centuries ago words were written to be a call and a spur to the faithful servants of Truth and Justice: 'Arm yourselves, and be ye men of valour, and be in readiness for the conflict; for it is better for us to perish in battle than to look upon the outrage of our nation and our altar. As the will of God is in Heaven, even so let it be.”
And later, he would quote, indirectly, the 23rd Psalm, when he spoke at the House of Commons on January 22, 1941,
"Far be it from me to paint a rosy picture of the future. Indeed, I do not think we should be justified in using any but the most sombre tones and colours while our people, our Empire and indeed the whole English-speaking world are passing through a dark and deadly valley. But I should be failing in my duty if, on the other wise, I were not to convey the true impression, that a great nation is getting into its war stride."
That great nation, though, would been caught flatfooted were it not for the writings, speeches, and thought of Churchill. To get into a war stride, you must first train and Churchill did his best to train his people for what would become their “finest hour.”