Power and Virtue

Raphael’s Picture of Castiglione


What gives “The Book of the Courtier” its unique place in literature is … how pertinent so many of its pages seem in our day…. The right relation of virtue to power will always be the key political issue, and few writers in the nearly five centuries since he wrote “The Book of the Courtier” understood this more profoundly than Baldassare Castiglione.
—Joseph Epstein

Epstein’s essay on Castiglione and The Book of the Courtier (published 1528) was printed in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. It grabbed my attention because it included Raphael’s portrait of Castiglione, which is one of my favorite paintings.

The Book of the Courtier talks about all the attributes a good courtier needs, but the purpose shouldn’t be to get close to rich and powerful rulers just for one’s own selfish interests. It should be to gain influence and help those in power rule wisely. Castiglione pointed out that rulers often become proud and arrogant when they become rich and powerful. They needed virtue to restrain them and keep them from disaster.

Do you agree with Castiglione? Do you think arrogant rulers have always created disaster for themselves? Do you think advisors to the rich and powerful nowadays try to encourage virtue and wise leadership? If so, do you think they’re having any luck?

Thanks to Cathy, Mike, tammy, bikehikebabe, Evan, Rummuser and Nick for commenting on last week’s post.
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11 Responses to Power and Virtue

  1. bikehikebabe says:

    Do you think arrogant rulers have always created disaster for themselves?—Yes. For instance look at our most influential politicians & the sexual messes they get themselves into.

    Cover his face except for Castiglione’s eyes. He’s very virtuous & kind. Also he’s very sad, maybe with a touch of anger. Am I reading too much with the eyes here?

  2. Jean says:

    What about JFK? He got away with his philandering, and a lot of people in the world still revere him. He was a master at PR.

    I’m not sure about the anger and sadness, but one reason the painting is so powerful is because it stirs our minds and emotions. It certainly stirs me!

  3. Mike says:

    Arrogant politicians sometimes create disaster for themselves, but, all too often, it’s others that are sorely impacted.
    Mike´s last blog post ..Setting Sun over Canton Lake.

  4. Jean says:

    I agree. When I asked the question I was also thinking of absolute rulers like Henry VIII, etc. They may have been disasters for their subjects, but they did quite well for themselves. I admire Castiglione, but I think he was too optimistic.

    I’ve heard poor Confucius spent his life trying to teach rulers to act morally and by the end of his life felt he was a failure. Plato didn’t have any better luck teaching tyrants to become philosopher kings. I’m afraid I think it’s hopeless. I’d love to be proven wrong.

  5. Evan says:

    These days the power resides with corporations and politicians are increasingly the courtiers (John Ralston Saul showed me this).

    I see very little evidence of pollies encouraging virtue amongst corporates. More the reverse eg business is way ahead of government on climate change. The pollies seem to have bought the ‘greed is good’ neo-liberal tosh far more than business people.

    I think it was Henry Kissinger who said that ‘experts are those who repeat the opinions of the elites back to them’. With the politicising of the public service this is truer than ever. Also the insulating of government ministers by walls of personal advisers.

    I think the emphasis has shifted away from wisdom to success and winning. And I think we are all the poorer for it.

    I agree with bhb about the eyes in the painting.
    Evan´s last blog post ..What Blocks Your Satisfaction?

  6. Rummuser says:

    Do you agree with Castiglione? No.

    Do you think arrogant rulers have always created disaster for themselves? No. But yes for the ruled.

    Do you think advisors to the rich and powerful nowadays try to encourage virtue and wise leadership? If so, do you think they’re having any luck? No to both.

    Do you think arrogant rulers…….. Is there any other kind?
    Rummuser´s last blog post ..Story 7. The Perquisite.

  7. bikehikebabe says:

    Roosevelt, JFK, & Clinton are highly respected in spite of their sexual escapades. (PR & charm help a lot.)
    Anthony Weiner is trying to get away with that too. But you have to be highly respected for your accompaniments in the 1st place. 😀

  8. tammyj says:

    maybe once upon a time there were true statesmen.
    power and money corrupt.
    but it takes so much money now to even BE in any kind of office and the eventual holder of that office owes his soul…
    so… i think i agree with you… it’s hopeless.
    and yet i manage to live a happy little life.
    odd. given the magnitude of the problems.
    i suppose i am truly an ostrich with my head in the sand.
    tammyj´s last blog post ..a pontificating peanut break!

  9. Jean says:

    If you look back in history, there have been very few good rulers. That’s why Plato wrote The Republic around 380 B.C. and why Confucius tried so hard to get good government for the people around 500 B.C. The problem is still not solved. 🙂

    I think it’s more complicated than just saying the corporations have all of the power. Yes, money buys influence, and politicians have to keep their money sources happy. They also have to keep their voters happy and that sometimes leads to conflicting interests. Also, when Bush invaded Iraq he did it for his (and Cheny’s, etc.) neoconservative agenda, not to promote business interests.

    It’s depressing but interesting.

    I’ve been looking at the painting some more. I think you and bikehikebabe are right — he does look sad to me.

    I don’t think Reagan was arrogant. That doesn’t mean his vision and policies were necessarily good for the country. And certainly Carter wasn’t arrogant. The things I remember most about him was him wearing sweaters in the White House because he had turned the heat down to save energy. He also had water heating panels installed in the White House and was trying to lead by example. I also remember how much he cared about the hostages in Iran. I agree with the view that he was a much better person than leader.

    Weiner is such a joke. 😀

    Good for you. No sense worrying about things we have no control over. As Andy keeps saying, “They didn’t ask us.”

    The interesting thing is in our small town the people in government often don’t agree with the people about what the best policies are. We used to diligently fill out surveys, go to meetings, etc. when they asked our opinion, but it turned out to be a waste of time. In this case we don’t believe it has to do with corruption, we think they’re fine people, but with different visions and values. And it isn’t that we’re always in the minority. We’ve been in meetings where everyone seemed to agree what people wanted, but that’s not what happened in the end. It’s very interesting. Now we just sit back and watch from time to time. It will be what it will be.

  10. bikehikebabe says:

    From Anthony Weiner’s prospective: He works out & it’s Soooooooooooo hard & takes Soooo much time. 😉 He gets muscle but what does he get out of it? Nothing. Nobody sees it because he must put on a shirt, tie, coat & look respectable. Don’t say seen by his wife, is enough. He’s a public type of guy.

  11. Jean says:

    I haven’t been following the story — I just know he’s in trouble again and wonder why he thought he had a chance of winning. As the saying goes, it takes all kinds to make a world.

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