As we mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Churchill today, I want to pick a minor quibble that I think is not so minor after you think it through a bit.
Several fine commentators, such as Victor Davis Hanson, have embraced the theme of Churchill as “the Last Lion,” borrowing from the title of William Manchester’s compulsively readable three-volume biography of Churchill. To be sure, Churchill was, like Lincoln, extraordinary and no doubt exceedingly rare. But Manchester meant “last” literally, arguing openly that we’d never see the likes of Churchill again because his kind of large character and statesmanship is simply impossible in the modern world. Manchester wrote in 1983 (in National Review, surprisingly enough) that “If there is a high office in the United States to which Winston Churchill could be elected today, it is unknown to me.”
The irony is that pre-war Churchill thought very much the same thing: see his remarkable essay from around 1930 entitled “Mass Effects in Modern Life,” which is in the must-have collection, Thoughts and Adventures. “Modern conditions do not lend themselves to the production of the heroic or superdominant type,” he wrote. This was, Harry Jaffa pointed out in a splendid essay entitled “Can There Be Another Churchill?,” an instance of Churchill being wrong:
In 1939, Winston Churchill did not think so. But, as so often in his life, he was mistaken. Let us take comfort in that.
The category error of “the Last Lion” theme derives from the pervasive historicism of our time—the view that the flow of History fundamentally changes human character and potentialities. Manchester attributes Churchill’s greatness precisely to the extent that Churchill was a Victorian anachronism in 1940. In his fine late 1990s biography of Churchill, Roy Jenkins wrote that explaining Churchill as a product of Victorian aristocracy is “unconvincing. . . Churchill was far too many faceted, idiosyncratic and unpredictable a character to allow himself to be imprisoned by the circumstances of his birth.” John Lukacs adds: “Contrary to most accepted views we ought to consider that [Churchill] was not some kind of admirable remnant of a more heroic past. He was not The Last Lion. He was something else.” The “something else” at the root of Churchill’s greatness in 1940 derived not from being a Victorian man, but from being, in a larger sense, an ancient man—the kind of “great-souled man” contemplated in Aristotle and other classical authors.
The tides of history and the scale of modern life have not made obsolete or incommensurate the kind of large-souled greatness we associate with Churchill or Lincoln or George Washington. Of course all of us are powerfully affected by our environment and circumstances, yet the case of Churchill offers powerful refutation to the historicist premise that humans and human society are mostly corks bobbing on the waves of history. Lots of Churchill’s contemporaries were also products of the late Victorian era—many of them from the same schools Churchill attended. But no one else had Chruchill’s courage, insight, and capacities. Why was Churchill virtually alone among his contemporaries? The answer must be that they transcended their environments and transformed their circumstances as only great men can do, and thereby bent history to their will. Which means we are contemplating a fundamental human type. Leo Strauss wrote of Churchill in a private letter to the German philosopher Karl Lowith: “A man like Churchill proves that the possibility of megalophysis [the great-souled man] exists today exactly as it did in the fifth century B.C.” (In other words, as the idea was presented in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.)
By all means let us read and enjoy all three volumes of The Last Lion. But let’s not embrace the premise of the title.
P.S. Let me add that Victor’s piece linked above is really good and I have no quarrel with a single word. I’m just picking on the title. I suspect Victor largely agrees with the point I am making here.