His Early Life

Dr. Larry Arnn is the president of Hillsdale College. He is also the former president of the Claremont Insitute. For three years (1977-1980) Arnn served as director of research for Sir Martin Gilbert, working with Sir Martin on Finest Hour: 1939-1941 (the link is to Simon Schama’s review of the book), Volume VI of the monumental authorized biography of Winston Churchill.

Hillsdale College Press is now republishing the authorized biography as well as the companion volumes of documents. The first two volumes (of what proved to be eight) are by Randolph Churchill; these first two volumes have now been restored to print. In the current issue of the Claremont Review of Books (subscribe here), Arnn considers Churchill’s early life in connection with the republication of these first two volumes. His essay is “Thoughts and Adventures.” It may be the finest essay ever published by the CRB.

Arnn looks at the virtues on display in Churchill’s early life. By way of a few thrilling adventure stories from Churchill’s early years, Arnn examines the greatness of Churchill’s life, which, he writes, was neither strictly active nor strictly contemplative. Some men are thinkers and others doers, but Churchill was both. A profuse and eloquent writer, a student of history, a soldier, and a statesmen, Churchill is a model of virtue in speech and in deed.

As a young soldier, Churchill seemed fearless — calm and deliberate in the face of the enemy, even spurred on by the sound of bullets flying around him. “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result,” he said. But courage is not everything, Arnn explains:

Courage has its deficiency, but also its excess. To run away spooked is the deficiency; to throw one’s life down for nothing is the excess. To choose which is right in the heat of fire, when there are not even seconds during which to choose, is a feat that requires courage but consists in prudence, the choosing virtue.

Churchill’s greatness was not merely that he was courageous, but that he possessed the virtue of choosing well. According to Aristotle, courage is a moral virtue, and prudence an intellectual one. And the moral and intellectual virtues are linked to the life of action and the life of contemplation. Few men excel in either action or contemplation, but Churchill excelled in both.

Like his life, Arnn writes, “[Churchill's] writings have a dual character.” He explains:

They are like the actions he takes in being themselves acts of ambition, meant to advance himself and his causes as much as any decision he makes or vote he casts, as much as any charge he launches or retreat he endures. At the same time they are explanations and reflections, commentaries on the way of politics, as politics reflects the way of life. He wrote famously, and also wisely, that “a man’s Life must be nailed to a cross either of Thought or Action.” He made his choice, but the record he leaves in pursuit of action is a fabric woven seamlessly of thought and action together. He invites us both in precept and example to contemplate their relation and to learn the dance of their distinctness and inseparability.

In Aristotle’s analysis of the virtues, “magnanimity” stands at the summit of human excellence. In reading about Churchill, one observes Churchill’s greatness of soul. Were it not for the occasional example of a man such as Churchill, one might think that magnanimity is a fictitious construct. Arnn’s magnificent essay helps us see it clearly manifested in Churchill’s early life.

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