A Softly Completed Scale

Many of us know the anecdote of the composer with the rebellious son who could always annoy  his father by playing an incomplete scale on the piano.  No matter what occupied the composer at the time, he would go to the piano and complete the scale himself.

True or not, the story testifies to our need for completeness.  Reading Charles Hill’s Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order made me think of this story, but with a slight twist.  I imagine Hill at the piano playing a complete scale, but with the last note much quieter than the others.  It’s there, but so faint that one would feel bound to go the piano and play the final note at its proper volume.  Meaning and wholeness requires balance, symmetry, and perhaps also, a strong finish.

Hill had a long career as a diplomat that spanned the Cold War and beyond and so has authority to speak on his subject.  What drew me to the book was his idea that good diplomacy went far beyond political science theories of realism, idealism, and the like.  Good diplomacy requires good literature, which touches us in areas beyond politics.  Problems in diplomacy arise when we seek mere political solutions to political problems.  As in C.S. Lewis’ “First and Second Things,” one only gets political solutions by basing them on something more foundational.  Hill believes that great literature gives us the foundations for real wisdom, and thus, real understanding of problems.  He quotes Henry Kissinger towards the end of the book, who said,

I put a proposition to you all: we have entered a time of total change in human consciousness of how people look at the world.  Reading books requires you to form concepts, to train your mind to relationships.  You have to come to grips with who you are.  A leader needs these qualities.  But now we learn from fragments of facts.  A book is a large intellectual construction; you can’t hold it all in your mind all at once.  You have to struggle mentally to internalize it.  Now there is no need to internalize because each fact can be called up instantly on the computer.  There is no context, no motive.  Information is not knowledge.  People are not readers, but researchers, they float on the surface.  Churchill understood context.  It disaggregates everything.  All this makes strategic thinking about the world nearly impossible to achieve.

Hill impressed me with the idea behind his book, and he displays a wide knowledge of western civilization’s literary heritage.  Many times I marked pages where I gained fresh insight and had my perspective challenged, but in the end the book left me frustrated at the missed opportunities Hill leaves on the table.  He conveys the message that great literature helps us understand the world and ourselves, but this note strikes me as far too wimpy and obvious given what the book could have achieved.

As Kissinger mentioned, statesmen should prioritize context.  Hill does a good job with this in his section on ancient literature.  He weaves in Aristotle’s assertion that the family gives the state its foundation, and then looks at the Illiad and the Odyssey, which have marriages at their center.  He fans out to Aeschylus, whose Oresteia  trilogy has the breakdown of family bonds nearly destroy the state.  He traces this up through De Tocqueville, who saw family, and especially women and mothers, as bulwarks of the familial stability needed for any state.  But democracies in particular need family stability due to their decisive emphasis on individual rights.

So far so good — my eyes got opened to a theme that unifies so many different thinkers across time.  But Hill draws no conclusions from this, he has no application.  He has no stories or anecdotes about how this insight helped him, or how it can help anyone else form a “grand strategy.”

Hill makes the importance of context brilliantly in his section on Walt Whitman.  If we know the opening lines of the The Illiad  and The Aeneid Whitman’s, “I sing the song of myself,” suddenly strikes one like a thunderclap.  We see that Whitman means to destroy, or perhaps remake, the whole concept of epic literature.  His exaltation of the “eternal now” of the individual has an enormous impact on how Americans think of themselves. You, the I, are now the epic, which brings us right up to social media today.  But again, to what end?  Hill hints at the potentially destructive impact of Whitman’s attempts to make the past obsolete, but never draws out the consequences for American diplomacy.  Many Europeans argue, for example, that Americans act rashly without proper understanding of context and history, but Hill never addresses this.  But now not just Americans, but much of the western world appears ready to formally and radically redefine the concept of marriage and family.  What will this mean for our diplomacy as a nation, especially in sensitive areas of the globe that reject this redefinition as blasphemy?  Hill compares the hopeful message of the Oresteia with American Eugene O’Neil’s recapitulation of the same themes in Mourning Becomes Electra.  O’Neill rejects Aeschylus’ hopeful conclusion.  Why, and to what end?  Again, Hill offers us nothing.

For someone so adept at drawing conclusions based on texts, and for someone so experienced in putting forth ideas and proposals, I cannot believe he lacks the ability to make grand strategic pronouncements.  But Hill plays it very close to the vest and misses a great opportunity to share whatever wisdom he has.  His great specific insights never come full circle.

Similarly, Hill frustrated me by never questioning the logic of the state itself.  He has high praise for the Peace of Westphalia, which in his view ended the cycle of violence from religion and clan and created the state.  This parallels what happened in the Oresteia and the symmetry appeals to Hill and to myself.  But has the state in fact limited violence?  Maybe it has, but it should not be assumed.  What problems come with the creation of states?  Aeschylus assumes the good of the state as almost a given, but that’s understandable given his medium.  Aeschylus also lived in one of the great golden ages of civilization, and the state no doubt shone brightly in its virtues in his lifetime.  Hill has no such restrictions of medium, and has the benefit of the hindsight of history.  He should have done more.

Hill tantalizes in doses.  The individual notes he strikes promise much.  But he fails to deliver on the promise of his title.