Saturday, July 12, 2008

Why Old Ideas Matter

Washington's approach to executive power may have seemed novel in his day (King George III was quoted as saying that if Washington could voluntarily resign his power, "he would be the greatest man in the world."). However, his refusal of a tyrant's crown had historical referents. Both of these referents originate in the Roman world.

Washington's favorite play was Addison's Cato . He even had it performed during that terrible winter at Valley Forge. In the play, Cato is an embodiment of republican virtue, and an enemy of the tyrant Julius Caesar. Cato is willing to resist Caesar's despotic rule - even if it means taking his own life.

During Washington's lifetime, he was compared to Cincinnatus. According to the historian Livy, Cincinnatus was twice given the power of a despot in order to save Rome from her military enemies. Twice Cincinnatus was able to repel the foreign threat and then willingly return to his plow. Like Washington, he served his country in its time of need and then resigned from executive power.

Since I teach at a classical school, I have high regard for the classical tradition, and I am thrilled to see the connection with Washington. Yet there is something here for leaders to glean: leaders benefit from historic role models. Don't become so consumed with being "cutting edge" that you forget what is "classical."

IDEA LEADER: Which historical heroes influence you? Why? How can you share their stories with those you lead?

No comments: