After hearing from Confucius, Thomas Carlyle, and Will Durant on the nature of the great leader, we come now to Rufus Fears, a contemporary professor of history. In his course The Wisdom of History,6 he tells us that a study of history offers lessons from the past that can inform decisions in the present to plan for the future. Ironically the first lesson is that traditionally people have not learned from history and the consequence has been a string of avoidable tragedies across time. History in his opinion is “one great self-help book.”7 He thinks that great nations rise and fall because of human decisions made by individuals, not anonymous social or economic forces. The statesman is distinguished from the mere politician and lesser leaders by four qualities: (1) a bedrock of principles, (2) a moral compass, (3) a vision, and (4) the ability to create a consensus to achieve that vision.
He juxtaposes Woodrow Wilson who failed to get a consensus for American ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations after World War I with FDR and Harry Truman, who not only won World War II but also the peace with the Marshall Plan and the United Nations. He also contrasts Adolf Hitler who had vision and consensus but not a moral compass with Winston Churchill who united not only his countrymen, but also America and the Soviet Union in defeating Fascism and genocide.
Fears is convinced great leaders do not separate private from public morality, citing the Old Testament Book of Samuel and the conduct of George Washington. He contrasts the contemporary belief in moral relativism with the historical experience of universal values such as wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation as the basis for a successful life. There is also cross-cultural agreement on honoring one’s parents, and abstaining from stealing, killing, and committing adultery. He recalls Cicero’s rebuke of ‘passive injustice,’ his term for standing by while another is subjected to injustice (echoed by Haile Selassee’s appeal to the League of Nations after Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930s).
Some other lessons from history include not stepping back from destiny (America’s founding fathers), not imposing your values on others (failed democracies in the Middle East) and knowing your mission in life (e.g. Meriwether Lewis). But perhaps the greatest lesson is the dangers of hybris (or hubris) especially thinking we are wise when we are ignorant, the abuse of power, arrogance, and failure to know one’s limits.
Fears ends on a philosophical note. “Ultimately, all things human pass away. What matters is the legacy they leave behind.”8 He closes, “The true wisdom of history is to understand each individual’s uniqueness and ability to make a contribution, great or small, that will leave the world a better place.”9
Fears and the others offer not only ethical tenets for those who aspire to the exceptional role of a great leader, but also remarkably practical guidance on the virtuous underpinning of all societal roles based on the lessons of history. We will come back to this in the synopsis at the end of this section, but first we look at the other extraordinary societal role, the sage.
6Fears, Rufus J., The Wisdom of History. The Teaching Company, Chantilly, VA., 2007.
7Fears, Rufus J., The Wisdom of History: Course Guidebook. The Teaching Company, Chantilly, VA., 2007. Page 185.
8Ibid., page 188.
9Ibid., page 189.