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Dr. Larry Arrn On Chapter 3 of Churchill’s Trial – A Statesman’s Virtue

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HH: For the second time in one week, I’m broadcasting from the Boyle studio at the Kirby Center of Hillsdale College this Friday, and I hope many Fridays into the future, many days into the future, joined by telephone this time by Dr. Larry Arnn. We were together on Monday when we broadcast from the Boyle studio, but he is on the phone today. Dr. Arnn, welcome, always good to talk to the president of Hillsdale College whether in person or over the line.

LA: How are you doing?

HH: I’m terrific. Now I’ve got to tell…

LA: I have to thank you, Hugh, for gracing our inauguration of our Boyle studio, because that was a great night.

HH: That was a terrific night, and the Speaker of the House came by to help us along with Senator Tom Cotton and Senator Cruz and Fred and Morton, and everybody else was great fun. Let me pause for a moment on something I wrote at CNN on Wednesday, which is that I think Ryan came, much as I love my own greatness, and as I like to say, I’m not perfect, I’m just the best, much as I love to do the Trump thing. I think he came because he knows Hillsdale’s position in the conservative pantheon, and he knows of your conversations and status with the political candidates. He knows that Hillsdale’s important and the conservative infrastructure is important. Do you agree with me?

LA: Oh, yeah. Well, he’s, you know, he’s a friend of Matt Spalding, who runs the Kirby Center, too. And I guess Matt may have known him longer than I, I don’t know, but I’ve known him a long time. And I, the prudence of Hillsdale College is pretty simple. We believe in there are certain truths about America, and one should pursue them. And so we like the people and spend time with the people who are most inclined to do that, whether they’re powerful or not. And so when they do become powerful, we have a friend. And that’s, you know, Paul Ryan is a really excellent man, and Tom Cotton, who was there that night, is another excellent man. And both of them, we knew before they were so important.

HH: But you also had some people who are just the definition of not important. You had California elected Republicans.

LA: Yeah, that’s right. (laughing)

HH: (laughing)

LA: So Senator Matt, sorry, Senator Mike Morrell, whose sons, David and Matt, are graduates of Hillsdale College. One of them works for me now. One of them is a big time lawyer. He was a clerk for Justice Thomas. And so that family, we’re all wrapped up together with them for a long time now. And Mike is an excellent senator in a minority in California.

HH: Yeah, and when you are in that position, all you can do is argue. And I hope he picked up something from the arguing. But it was a splendid Monday. But let’s get down to business, because I am in Chapter 2 of the brand new book by Dr. Larry Arnn, Churchill’s Trial. And this chapter is called a more, The Statesman’s Virtue. And I want to make sure that we tell the story of Greece. And it’s Chapter 3, excuse me, Chapter 3, it’s called The Statesman’s Virtue, and then come back to the beginning of the chapter, because I was transfixed as you talked about, and I had not read, there are rules against that kind of thing when he talked about Greece. So would you explain to the audience here in the Hillsdale Dialogue what choice confronted Churchill when he was prime minister, and Greece was being overridden?

LA: Well, the point of the chapter is, there are two truths about every choice we make, and one of them is there are some absolute principles that can never be violated, and the other is that we have to do what the circumstances demand. And Churchill explained how both of those things are true. Well, the Greece thing is an example of an absolute truth. Before the war, Britain and Greece made a pact that there’s a war coming, and if one of us gets attacked, the other one will go help them. And so then first, the Greeks were fighting the Italians, and that wasn’t so difficult. But then the German army came after them, and so Greece is in real trouble now, and was eventually conquered. And so they appealed to Britain for help. Well, between the time that the pact was made and the time the appeal was issued by Greece, France had fallen, and the Soviet Union had become an ally of Nazi Germany. And so you have the massive German army, and the huge Soviet army against the tiny British army. And so how are they going to go help them now? And Churchill was advised that whatever you send down there, you can’t save them. You don’t have enough. I wonder if we can even save ourselves. And they’ll be lost. They won’t come back. In the event, by the way, Greece did fall, but most of them did come back, although they sent a force down there of considerable size, and they fought. So then the question is the prudence of this thing. When we’re desperate, when we’re being bombed, when the massive German onslaught is against us, should we go help the Greeks? And so Churchill says in a really beautiful speech, one of my favorite things he ever said, in paraphrase, because I don’t have it in front of me, he said in their hour of need, the Greeks appeal to us for succor, and by solemn agreement before the war, we had agreed that we would give it. And we could not say to them nay. To abandon an ally in such a circumstance, he says, you can’t do that. He says, and this is the phrase that struck me, and it echoes the Declaration of Independence, in my opinion, there are rules against that kind of thing.

HH: Can I read the entire paragraph, because it’s on…

LA: Yeah, Hugh, you have it there, yeah.

HH: Page 63 – “By solemn guarantee given before the war, Great Britain had promised them her help. They declared they would fight for their native soil, even if neither of their neighbors made common cause with them, and even if we left them to their fate. But we could not do that. There are rules against that kind of thing, and to break those rules would be fatal to the honor of the British Empire, without which we could neither hope nor deserve to win this hard war.”

LA: Yeah, isn’t that beautiful? And see, that, and I remember there’s a recording of the speech that’s one of the better recordings. Sometimes, Churchill sounds bored on the recordings, because most of the radio broadcasts were done, rebroadcast. He went into a studio and read a speech he’d given in the House of Commons where he was full of life. This speech is a very good one, and his voice is rich. And he says there are rules against that kind of thing. And it makes you ask the question, what, where are those rules? Will you go and look those up?

HH: Yes, I’ve never asked that question before. That’s exactly right. Where? Point me to them.

LA: (laughing) Yeah, and you know, in the Declaration of Independence, it says the laws of nature and of nature’s God. And you wonder, okay, I’m interested in those laws. Where do find them?

HH: (laughing)

LA: And the answer is, so in James Madison, my favorite explanation of where you would look, because what is, the sacred rights of mankind, writes Alexander Hamilton, are not to be rummaged for in dusty parchments. But rather, they are written in the whole volume of human nature by the hand of Divinity itself. In other words, these grand things are the first and chief thing that you see. And you have to proceed in accordance with them. And so that’s why it was easy for Churchill to think we have to go and help them, even if we can’t save them. It’s important for us to pay a price for their defeat, because we said we would. And that’s…

HH: And I love this example, because I’ve often taught natural law to Con Law students, and I always ask them where are those laws, you know, the laws of nature and nature’s God, and we have that conversation. But that’s a long ago period of time, right?

LA: Yeah.

HH: That’s people in wigs and high stockings talking in a period of just remote from ours where they didn’t have automation, they couldn’t fly, and they believed silly things. But now, we live in the modern world, and here’s Churchill saying the same thing. There are rules against that kind of thing, and I have not seen it so elegantly put until I read Churchill’s Trial that okay, what’s he talking about? And if you put it directly to him, how would he answer it, Larry Arnn?

LA: Well, that’s, you know, his life is the answer to that, but Churchill, you know, I write quite a lot about this in the book. Churchill thought that people are a kind of thing. He thought just exactly what Thomas Jefferson meant when he said men are not horses, and other are not born booted and spurred to ride them. Human beings are a kind of thing. And when you look at that kind of thing, you can see how to treat it. We have dogs in my family, and it’s obvious that it’s okay to put those dogs on a lead and take them around, because by the way, if you don’t, Lord knows what they’ll do, whereas we have children, the children are grown now, but the time when we could lead them around as if they were dogs, was actually short-lived, because they’d develop into something else. And those are perceptions of the order of nature. When we see the things around us, and the kind of things they are, then we see how they are to be treated. And so that’s what it means, and it only means that. And it is an incredible thing that those are the kind of perceptions that are doubted or called into question by modern philosophy and modern science.

HH: Indeed, it is. I’ll be right back with Dr. Larry Arnn. It is the Hillsdale Dialogue. We are in Chapter 3 of his brand new book, Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill And The Salvation Of Free Government, linked over at Hughhewitt.com, available in bookstores everywhere. You all ought to read this. You’ll just be amazed at how transfixed you are, because it’s a synthesis of Churchill’s life and his most important aspects. And I’ve read a lot of Churchill biographies. This is not that. This is the peaks of Churchill’s life as applied to today and tomorrow, and you ought to avail yourself of it. It’s over at Hughhewitt.com.

— – – —

HH: And a question I noted to myself, Dr. Larry Arnn, you’ve been working on Churchill your whole life. How old were you when you went to work on Churchill?

LA: I was 22.

HH: Okay, so we’ve got 30-plus years that you’ve been working on Churchill.

LA: Yeah, 40 years.

HH: If any other person, yeah, 40 years. And if someone went and worked 40 years on Churchill and then sat down to write the synthesis that is Churchill’s Trial, would they find themselves repairing to the same essays such as Consistency in Politics, Painting, Mass Effects, as you? You know, he wrote 8,000 articles, I think I read you wrote at one point, and yet you obviously view some as more important than others. Would anyone who spent 40 years at work studying Churchill come to those same essays with the same gravitas as you bring, attribute to them?

LA: Well, I think so. There actually isn’t anyone else except Martin Gilbert, who did it more than I did, and for longer than I have done. And what he did was write, you know, several million words about everything in Churchill’s life. So who else is there who spent this long at it? And because of the weirdness of my life, because I have a job apart from being a teacher and a writer, I haven’t written a huge amount about Churchill, but I have thought about it for a long time. And I do submit and argue that these are the things that explain most clearly the recurrent statements, principles and actions of Winston Churchill, and I regard those statements, actions and principles as being broadly consistent over the course of his life.

HH: And what is increasingly obvious to me in Churchill’s Trial is that you have to spent 40 years in Churchill to get to the ability to write, not at great length about him, but sparingly and about the essentials.

LA: One of, yeah, you need to be smarter and quicker than I am to do it quicker than that. That’s for sure, because he, you know, there’s a forest, and so you know, and that means there’s a whole lot of trees. And what do they mean? And you do have to sort of read them all and think about them all in order to decide which ones are most important. And I did that for a long time.

HH: One of the most important, obviously, is his biography of his ancestor, Marlborough. And you also quote at one point where he’s talking about why action matters so much. Nothing but genius, the demon in man can answer the riddles of war, and genius, though it may be armed, cannot be acquired either by reading experience. But when from time to time it flashes upon the scene, order and design with a sense almost of infallibility draw out from hazard and confusion. In other words, he believes in the great man theory of history.

LA: Oh, yeah.

HH: And however, those great men can show up anywhere. There’s, they have no fixed physical form. They have no given nationality, no predetermined religious creed. They just show up.

LA: That’s right. And that’s, and see what that passage is about, I’ll just, so people ask me all the time who is the next Winston Churchill, and I always say we won’t know until he comes along. And it wouldn’t be odd if we never see another one for our lifetimes, because they’re rare. And see what that means? It means that really great statesmen are extremely artful people, and things go well when they’re around. But on the other hand, if they’re rare, don’t they also kind of represent chance or fortune, which is the opposite of art? Art is what we do deliberately. But then, you know, it matters a lot who’s in charge. And really great ones are rare. So this art is also, kind of represents chance. And it’s a very interesting thing to me about Winston Churchill that he thought about things like that a lot, which you can also read in the pages of Aristotle when he’s giving an account of how we think and how we make choices, and how we use practical judgment. Churchill knew a lot about that.

HH: I was struck, I was struck by how much he thought…I had not put it together, though I had read a lot about him, that he did give a lot of thought to this idea of chance versus art. And I had written in my margin here a single Boer bullet might have meant no Dardanelles, no, or even Britain in World War II. But he never even considered for a moment that that would happen to him. And he told the story, I think you referred to it, of World War I and the trenches when the bomb hit his bunker.

LA: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah, and some annoying person, a general, you know, Churchill was sort of a famous, he became, of course, an extremely famous man, but he was already a famous man in the First World War, and he’s a colonel in the trenches, and this general asked him to come and see him, and meet him somewhere. And that meant he had to walk two miles through the mud, you know, and leave his men. And he was angry about it and upset. And then the fellow was late. But when he got back, not long after he left, his shelter had been destroyed by a direct hit by a bomb. And he would have been dead, except for that. And that, you know, and Churchill thought about that. He thought, think what that means. He had written to his mother when he was a young soldier, because he was very brave and very bold and very assertive with an explicit attempt to get himself in the papers. And his mother said take care of yourself, and he replied God did not make such a force as me merely to stop a bullet.

HH: Yeah.

LA: But then after this thing happens, he’s thinking to himself, yeah, isn’t that something how much depends on chance? And then if you think that about this same time in history, on the other side of the battlefield, Adolf Hitler was gassed. And he might have been killed.

HH: Would that he were, but he wasn’t.

LA: And he wouldn’t have, and just think how the world would be different if that had happened? So both of them were near to harm, and neither of them came to harm. And that tells you something, right? Now what Churchill thinks that means, and this is a sophisticated point, but I invite people to think about it, because you know, especially if you’re in the teaching business, here’s how it becomes a practical problem. Young people want to know how they can live their lives well, and what’s likely to happen, right? And they’re always wondering how much of what’s going to happen to me is just accident, and how much of it is on purpose, and how much is this and how much is that, because they, you know, it’s a big future ahead of them. And what Churchill thought was today in the world, we’ll talk about this as the book, the second half of the book is about this problem. Today in the world, we have modern science. And we’re trying to fix every problem. We, and we have fixed, so very many. We live longer, and more people who are rich, whole populations have come up out of grinding poverty all around the world in the last 20 years. Now on the other hand, we have installed these bureaucratic governments, and they’re trying to make everything the same and take care of every problem. And they take over our lives, right? Well, what Churchill thought was, no, that isn’t really how the world works. We can’t protect it…

HH: Nor can it be expected to last that way for long. I’ll be right back with Dr. Larry Arnn. This is really an extraordinary book, Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill And The Salvation Of Free Government. You’ll want to go and order it right now. It’s linked at Hughhewitt.com and bookstores everywhere, or find the lectures about it at www.hillsdale.edu.

— – – –

HH: We are now talking, although we’re talking about Winston Churchill, I’m going to go back a few hundred years, because in Chapter 3 of Churchill’s Trial, there is this paragraph. In the preface to his biography of John Churchill, the first duke of Marlborough, Churchill describes the Duke as a man almost beyond chance. He, “Never fought a battle that he did not win, nor besieged a fortress he did not take. Amid all the chances and baffling accidents of war, he produced victory with almost mechanical certainty.” That was a different kind of mechanism than the sort Churchill deplored in the River War, and he wrote that it was unique. “Nothing like this can be seen in the military annuls.” He, “Never rode off any field except as a victor.” Was that not the very idea of the statesman, the man who conquered chance? And why did such mighty personalities, and what did such mighty personalities have to do with the little accidents that divert or dominate our personal lives? What’s the answer to that last question, Larry Arnn, that you can point to a Marlborough, or a Winston Churchill? What’s that got to do with us?

LA: Yeah, that’s right. He says, so in this very thoughtful essay published in 1933, he raises the question, have things gotten so big, and our powers through modern science so great, that individuals don’t matter anymore? And I’ve always believed, he says, he begins the essay, in the great man theory of history. But is that still true? Is everything just a mass? The essay is called Mass Effects In Modern Life. And he takes, first of all, the example of our own lives. You know, like I recently, my wife and I had our 36th wedding anniversary. And think of the chances that involved my meeting that woman in Oxford, England in 1977. I got a Rotary fellowship. Somebody else might have got it. I almost didn’t apply to it. I made the decision to go and study Churchill. I might have gone to some other country. You can pick your country with that fellowship. My teacher had an introduction to Martin Gilbert, so I met him, we got on, so he gave me a job. That hadn’t been the plan. And then my wife, who had been in the course of moving to London, came down with glandular fever, and was laid up for six months, went home up in the north of England, and then moved back to Oxford, right? All those chances, and because of those, my children exist, our four children. And you know, think of their lives. One of them is the headmaster of a school now. And they’re, one of them is going to be a great architect, and they’re all doing great, right? And all of that depends on a bunch of little things happening a certain way. And Churchill says so is it true that we can actually build engines that can take care of chance and eliminate chance? And then he says if that’s true in our own particular lives, think about these big, huge consequential lives? Think about the people who kill or save the lives of hundreds of thousands, or in the modern world, even millions? What about them? and so he says that it is dangerous for the world to become so large that little organizations and little people don’t matter. There might not be any room for us to live our lives. But it’s also hard to think how such a world would live, would work because of the way our lives are. And what the reader should think about, first of all, this is a very interesting subject, and there is a vast literature in the classical world about things like this, about nature, art and chance, the three causes that make things happen in the world as we know it. But second, this is Winston Churchill seeing Hitler coming along, seeing these vast movements that you know, and what kind of governments do they found, the first in history, totalitarian governments where whole populations, whole races of people can be rounded up and put in cattle cars and taken to factories for their extermination. And Churchill’s asking the question in a small and yet profound philosophic way, is that what the world is going to become? And he concludes in this essay that it can’t become that.

HH: It can’t.

LA: It can’t, because chance matters.

HH: And even the greatest are subject to it. It’s fascinating when you quote him as well. He writes, “The great captains of history as we have seen, seem to move their armies about as easily as they ride their horses from place to place.” And so he’s talking about genius, but you can’t find it. You can’t predict it. And then you, Larry Arnn, write, “The cities will be miserable,” and you’re paraphrasing Plato here, “The cities will be miserable until philosophers are kings. But these philosophers will not serve willingly, and we who would benefit from their rule cannot force them, because we lack the knowledge of who and what they are.” I’ll be right back with Dr. Larry Arnn. Go nowhere, America.

— – — –

HH: And buried in there, I want to devote our last segment this week digging into this, is this discussion of Winston Churchill’s essay on Painting. And people have got to be prepared to go from the Duke of Marlborough taking every fortress he ever lays siege to, to Winston Churchill’s essay on painting, because they are talking about the same thing.

LA: Yeah, that’s it. He, Churchill, one my favorite things that Churchill ever wrote is called Painting As A Pastime. Churchill was a painter, and he was, for an amateur, an extremely successful painter. He had many exhibitions at the Royal Academy, of which he eventually became a member. And he had many of those before he was the greatest man in the world, after the Second World War. And his paintings are fun, and there are two things in the world that I wish I was rich enough to have that I’m not, and one of them is one of Churchill’s painting. If Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are listening, please give me the Goldfish, because…

HH: (laughing) And you’ll display it at Hillsdale, I assume.

LA: With deep gratitude to them. And my argument would be an argument from Socratic economics. Socrates argues that a thing belongs to the person who knows best how to use it. So yeah, he was a heck of a painter. And then he wrote, and this is delightful, because remember, Churchill wrote for a living all his life, and people paid him in money to do that, because people liked to read what he wrote. And here’s, and I invite the listener to think about John Kerry for a minute. Here’s Winston Churchill, who was actually a pretty good painter, writing a letter, writing an article about painting, and you know, did you ever hear John Kerry talk about how good a skier he is, for example?

HH: No.

LA: He’s like that kid in class that talks too much and thinks they know everything. So this essay is fun. It’s all about what a bad painter he is, and all about how much fun it is to paint. And then it turns out in the middle of this thing as something really serious.

HH: Yeah, it’s not really about painting at all.

LA: No, and it’s really about how the human, just mark, Hugh, right? Churchill was a politician. He had considerable thoughts about the question what does the human soul do and achieve when it does three things that he compares in this essay? One is paint a great painting. That means that you look out on a scene, and everything is big and shifting and changing by the second. And you capture it in two dimensions on one single static, and you can see, for example, a sea battle. What could be different from a sea battle than something on a canvas sitting still? And yet there are people who can take the sea battle and put it on there.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And then you see better than you could see any other way what a sea battle is like. You can even see it better than being in the battle, depending on your vantage point. What quality of soul makes that possible? And then he compares it to the quality of soul that lets a military commander in all of the confusion of battle know where to put his troops and when. And then he compares that to a philosophic argument. And he says that they are the same capacity of soul, and that when you see it, you’re seeing genius. And then he sort of ranks those three things, and he seems to think that he painter has the best of it. He likes that best, and says at one point it’s more exciting to paint a picture than it is to fight a battle.

HH: He didn’t say win a battle, he said fight one. And you noted that, and I noted that.

LA: Yeah.

HH: And I’m amazed that he buried this in 1925, in the middle of, is he out of office at this point, in ’25?

LA: No, he’s Chancellor of the Exchequer.

HH: So he wrote this when he was at, as busy as he possibly he could, he’s burying his real meaning in this, and I ask you directly, did he intend this to be read at the level that you read it and read it now?

LA: Well, I think so. And first of all, you have to remember, here’s a point about politics of which Churchill was profoundly aware. What I just, that story, you know, I think John Kerry is arrogant, myself, and I don’t, he doesn’t appeal to me.

HH: You don’t have to make an argument. That’s, sometimes, things are just evident.

LA: Yeah, there we go.

HH: There you go.

LA: And one of the, and this is a democratic country, and our elected leaders are not supposed to be lording it up over us. So Churchill makes his points about greatness in this way, and I think he makes it for our edification. First, he doesn’t point to himself, except in the most indirect and careful way. There’s no bragging in it. And yet, I think that there’s reason for bragging. And then the second thing is he reminds us, each of us, that our lives will be better if we live them as greatly as possibly we can. It will be good for us to aim for that, and we will be happier if we do. And so that’s why, I think, he writes this essay this way. And if you just think about his career, most of these signal things that he wrote in his career, and there are very many of them, are written in the middle of incredible pressures, often disastrous dangers. And he’s making a comment from another angle about those to teach us something.

HH: It’s a remarkable essay and a remarkable chapter in what is becoming for me a remarkable book, Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill And The Salvation Of Free Government by Larry Arnn. A lot of people sit down and they write a book because they’re interested in it. Some people sit down and write a book because they have to write it. I think this is in the second category. We have a minute left, Dr. Arnn. I don’t know that you had any choice but to write this after 40 years of studying the man.

LA: I thought, you know, first of all, you ask yourself the question what are you if you don’t? You know, because I do, I teach it, and so I’ve learned a lot about it from doing that, because if you sit in a classroom with 20 really smart people, and they’re doing the readings, too, there’s a whole bunch, I think, I acknowledged it in the preface, there’s a whole bunch of stuff in this book that came up in class. And a lot of it was said by me. A lot of it was not. And so there’s that, right? And so I thought maybe I can do this, and somebody else probably won’t, because it takes so long. And if I did this…

HH: And that’s why you need, yeah, and that’s why I’m glad you did.

LA: Yeah, yeah.

HH: And it’s why I’m glad people can go and get it. Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill And The Salvation Of Free Government, linked over at Hughhewitt.com. Don’t forget, all of the Hillsdale Dialogues at www.hughforhillsdale.com. We’ll continue them next week.

End of interview.

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