James Leroy Wilson's blog

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Listening to your inner Bismarck

In his Taki article on George Kennan and the Discovery of Realism, Lee Congdon writes,
While conducting foreign policy, realists insist, a person acts under the authority of a standard of morality at some variance with that which governs his personal behavior. As an individual he may well choose to sacrifice his personal interest for some higher good—he may even obey the scriptural injunction to turn the other cheek. But insofar as he acts as the agent of others, of those whose welfare has been entrusted to him, he cannot, so to speak, turn a collective cheek. His duty is to defend their interests, not to sacrifice them to his own sense of right and wrong.
And their interests transcend not just the right and wrong of "universal morality," but also of honor and disgrace. Machiavelli quotes the Roman historian Livius, who describes what happened after the Roman Army fell into a trap, and was given the option of retreating in disgrace or fighting:
But the Legate Lentulus said [Machiavelli quoting Livius] "That for the purpose of saving the country no propositions ought to be rejected. The safety of Rome depended on that army, and he maintained that it ought to be saved at any price; that the defense of their country was always good, no matter whether effected by honorable or ignominious means. That if the army were saved, Rome would in time be able to wipe out that disgrace; but if the army were lost, even if they died most gloriously Rome and her liberties would also be lost."
The national interest trumps everything. And the national interest is national survival, the ability of the country to maintain its own laws and trade, immigration, and security policies without outside interference or domination.

Otto von Bismarck is regarded as the master statesman in this regard. In the late 19th century, he unified Germany under the Prussian monarch, turning it into the most prosperous and powerful country on the European continent. Even the blunders - acquiring Alsace-Lorraine after the Franco-Prussian war, acquiring overseas colonies - were done against his better judgment at the behest of his boss, the Kaiser. The difference between good and bad statemen, whether monarchs, ministers, Presidents, or legislators, is that the bad seek "greatness" whereas the good are concerned only with the national interest.

[Note: Even if Bismarck made plenty of mistakes, and even if he's not the genius he's made out to be, from here on out I'm using Bismarck the myth as a metaphor.]

I wonder if the break between personal morality and realist statesmanship isn't a tad overrated. Granted, personal survival may not always be your "highest good." If you see a child swept up in the current, you may put the child's survival ahead of your own and attempt a rescue. And if you view the body as a temporary illusion you may well afford to "turn the other cheek."

But perhaps overall we would be better off if we each had a spiritual Machiavelli, our own inner Bismarck, giving us counsel. But let me make this clear: such a realist counsel is not to be used to achieve your wants and goals, crushing anyone who stands in the way. Rather, the inner Bismarck should be used to prevent our ego desires from spinning out of control. The inner Bismarck should be focused on your survival, your health.

I was told that a cousin of mine once remarked that he doesn't fear death (i.e., the afterlife), but he does fear dying. That's a good way of saying it. As animals, our instinct is to survive, to live. To avoid suffering when we can. That's what the inner Bismarck is for.

You are your own King, sovereign over your own body and property. Your will is the law. Now, if you are a self-loathing sort in an existential crisis, bad habits and sloth might overtake you because life is vanity and everything is meaningless. But if the course you're on is clearly toward illness and poverty, the inner Bismarck is there to say, "Your highness, my advice would be put aside the philosophical dilemmas for now because your survival and good health is always good. I would advise against buying that box of Ho-hos and save the money instead."

Others may be annoyed by the mannerisms of others, easily offended by even unintentional breaches of etiquette, ready to fight at any perceived insult. The inner Bismarck is there to say, "Your highness, I believe it is time to relax. What these other people do or say have no bearing on your self-interest. Worrying about them makes you feel bad inside, which is against your self-interest. Creating conflict is definitely against your self-interest."

Because emotional turmoil leads to ill health (and can already be felt physically in the heart or gut), the inner Bismarck is there to strategize and set priorities. If you have a variety of tasks to do, the inner Bismarck will tell you the order they should be done to diminish your stress level most rapidly.

Our emotional state often effects our thinking and judgment, leading us to bad decisions. The inner Bismarck forces one to ask, "What would a rational, outside observer looking after my own best interests do about this?" More often than not, he would cut through the confusion created by the ego and emotions, and point you in the right direction. Then it's just up to you to take the steps.


  1. At last! I've found a blog that goes beyond the usual political pablum. I've been delving a bit into realist ideas and am intrigued. This is an interesting and thought provoking post. Thank you.

  2. What a great post, Jim. I'm going to start listening to my inner Bismarck - and I'm not talking about pastry (I probably have too many of them)! I think it's good advice. My inner Bismarck tells me it's time to exercise more and eat more healthily. I know I am more effective in all other areas of my life when my physical and soul life is in balance - but I do not always live what my inner Bismarck knows is best.

  3. Excellent post. The "inner Bismarck" is a fascinating concept. I wonder, though, if the purpose of Realpolitik at the state level is simply so inherently different than the interest at the level of the individual--or rather, is it the necessity of the state to counteract the individual should he become too rampantly individualistic, too driven by self-interest?