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By John von Heyking


The Montréal Review, May 2021



By John von Heyking
Hardcover: 224 pp. St. Augustines Press.


Darkest Hour

            Winston Churchill is part of a long line of statesmen who considered friendship as the core of their craft, which was to understand politics as the art of turning enemies into friends. Like them, he understood political friendship depends on cultivating strong personal friendships with other artisans and that indeed, exemplary friendships with people of good moral character count and inform the bonds of the wider polity.

            Churchill’s own friendship with Franklin Roosevelt that sustained the alliance against Hitler was modelled on the friendship of Churchill’s ancestor the Duke of Marlborough and Eugene of Savoy. Other examples of politically significant friendships that students of politics can study include Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan’s friendship that continued Churchill and Roosevelt’s “special relationship”; Reagan and Tip O’Neill; George Washington and James Madison; Madison and Thomas Jefferson; John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the “two poles” of the American Revolution; Abraham Lincoln’s “team of rivals” whose modus operandi was turning rivals for power into friends, especially William Seward; the friendship between the two founders of responsible government in Canada before Confederation, Louis – Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin; the friendship between John A. MacDonald and Etienne Cartier, the “Siamese twins” who guided Canada’s Confederation. In a time where social isolation seems to produce political enmity, pondering friendships such as these can help teach us how to become better citizens capable of working with and even befriending those whose political views differ from our own, and to recognize that as important as politics is, it is less important than cultivating the moral and intellectual character that at the end of the day makes us worthy to be called someone’s good friend.

            Some of you will have seen the movie from 2017, Darkest Hour, which dramatizes the events of May 1940 as Churchill, played by Gary Oldman, becomes prime minister, consolidates his leadership, and commits England to war against Nazi Germany. Perhaps the most famous scene in the movie is where Churchill mimics Henry V on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt by taking a ride in the Underground to gauge the spirit of the English people and to steel himself for the impending decision to commit England to go to war. The scene shows Churchill gauging the fighting spirit of the subway riders, and by extension the nation as a whole, who are surprised to have him in their midst. The climax of the scene is when the riders, with Churchill, chant the famous lines from Macaulay’s “Horatius,” which form part of his “Lays of Ancient Rome:”

Then out spake brave Horatius,

The Captain of the Gate:

“To every man upon this earth

Death cometh soon or late.

And how can man die better

Than facing fearful odds,

For the ashes of his fathers,

And the temples of his Gods1

            What the scene lacks in historical accuracy–Churchill inspired the English people, not the other way around and he did not ride the Underground before his “Fight Them on the Beaches” speech to the House of Commons—compensates for its excellent dramatic portrayal of an essential component of his statecraft, which is friendship.

            The scene portrays Churchill establishing sympathetic understanding of the British people; indeed he learned to “trust the people” from his father, Lord Randolph. It portrays him getting into their heads and hearts to determine their thinking and their own resolve—as well as his own. His was the intelligence of sympathy that got him into the interior of persons he met, which is the prerequisite for performing acts of practical wisdom required by statesmanship. Friendship, it could be said, is the form of politics.

Friendship, it could be said, is the form of politics.

            But getting into the head of another—sympathy or shared understanding— is difficult to do, and perhaps even more difficult to portray artistically. Philosophers find it exceedingly difficult to describe the phenomenon. The best Aristotle can do in his famous treatment of friendship is to describe the union of minds in friendship as an act of (in Greek) “sunaisthesis,” the act of intellectual joint perception by which two friends behold the good and the beautiful while simultaneously beholding each other. His teacher Plato portrays “sunaisthesis” by writing dialogues where the reader can sympathize even with Socrates’ interlocutors whom he frequently makes to look foolish.

            The summit of friendship is an act of intellectual triangulation whereby participants experience one another while also experiencing something greater than the individuals involved. Musicians will be familiar with the experience of finding themselves with others “in the groove.” Indeed, scholars of music frequently appeal to the language of friendship to describe it when musicians are in sync with one another and with the composition. Churchill himself used similar language to describe his friendship with Roosevelt, and the friendship of his great ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough and Eugene of Savoy of whom he said were “two lobes of the same brain” who oversaw the “whole scene” of the war against Louis XIV.

            And so the filmmakers displayed great insight when they portrayed Churchill establishing friendship with the Underground riders by having them chant the lines from Macaulay, a poem that laments lost civic friendship. It is through making music together, especially in festal chorus, whereby human beings express their togetherness most vividly. Churchill had a musical sensibility that enabled him to achieve this. For example, at Harrow he memorized Macauley’s “Lays of Ancient Rome” and he once suggested English instead of Latin poetry the key ingredient of a young Englishman’s education. His lyrical speeches were in the “psalm style” and tapped into the deep wells not only of English history but also the English psyche. One reviewer of a collection of his speeches proclaimed, “He not only makes laws for his people but writes their songs as well, in the sense that his speeches are battle cries, dirges for the fallen and hymns of victory.”2 He paid great attention to festivity and pageantry, as when he arranged the hymns as well as the deck chairs for the worship service on the HMS Prince of Wales for his first meeting with Roosevelt off the coast of Newfoundland. The Darkest Hour movie portrays his musical sensibility in the next scene when he tells his outer cabinet: "If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground." The “island story” expresses the soul of the political friendship that constitutes the English nation through history.

            In providing you a synopsis of my book, Comprehensive Judgment and Absolute Selflessness, I wish to show you how friendship, both personal and political, is at the core of Churchill’s moral vision of politics.

Friendship: Means and End of Politics

            Churchill regarded friendship an important tool for statecraft. For example, he placed special emphasis on face-to-face meetings that permitted both trust and a common understanding of the “whole scene” that is otherwise unavailable when relations are restricted to written correspondence or phone calls. Face-to-face conversation and convivium allows for greater access to the truth. Churchill’s dinner table diplomacy was famous. He once joked “if only I could dine with Stalin once a week, there would be no trouble at all.”3 Being one “with whom it is agreeable to dine” was a mark of being in Churchill’s inner circle. Andrew Roberts captures the blend of friendship and statecraft at these dinners when he writes: “He would turn mealtimes into information-exchange seminars, international summits, intelligence-gathering-operations, gossip-fests, speech-practice sessions and even semi-theatrical performances. It must have been thrilling to have been present.”4

Face-to-face conversation and convivium allows for greater access to the truth. Churchill’s dinner table diplomacy was famous. He once joked “if only I could dine with Stalin once a week, there would be no trouble at all.”

            Even so, friendship was more than instrumental for the goals of statecraft. It is at the core of his moral vision of politics. He seems to have regarded the whole point of political action as an adventure to be enjoyed with friends. Roosevelt told Churchill in those dark days shortly after Pearl Harbor, “It is fun to be in the same decade with you,”5 which was an apparent reference to Roosevelt recently having turned 60 and joining Churchill in that decade. Even so, they did have fun together during those dark days. He enjoyed similar convivium and adventure early in his career with F.E. Smith (Lord Birkenhead) and during and after World War Two with Canadian Lord Beaverbrook, the only member of the war cabinet without portfolio. Churchill simply wanted “the Beaver’s” company (and his considerable talent and energy). Similarly, in his biography of his great ancestor, John Churchill the Duke of Marlborough, Churchill notes how all of Marlborough’s exertions not only against King Louis XIV, but also against the obstacles his alliance partners threw against him, were compensated by the friendship he enjoyed with Prince Eugene of Savoy. Their friendship in the early 18th century, like that of Churchill and Roosevelt in the first half of the 20th century, was key to battling the central European despot. But more than that, Marlborough and Eugene simply had fun killing Frenchmen.

            Churchill attributes to Marlborough daimonic powers that enabled him to take in the “whole scene” of battle and also to peer inside the souls of others in order to understand their ambitions and strategems. He claimed this even enabled Marlborough to understand his enemies better than they understood themselves; Marlborough erred in his decisions only when his enemies erred in theirs. Marlborough’s daimonic powers also facilitated his capacity of friendship, and made him an exemplary commander and statesman. Churchill writes: “It is these qualities of perfect comprehensive judgment, serene in disappointment or stress, unbiased by the local event in which he was himself involved, this fixing with untiring eye and absolute selflessness the problem as a whole, that deserve the study and respect of soldiers of every age.”6 Churchill saw an essential link between “perfect comprehensive judgment” and “absolute selflessness.” Capacity for friendship is a key trait of the statesman.

Lord Birkenhead and “Other Club”

            Churchill enjoyed important friendships throughout his life. F. E. Smith (Lord Birkenhead) and he were members of Lloyd George’s cabinet but before that in 1911 they formed the “Other Club,” a trans-partisan club that gathered monthly for dinners and convivium. “The Other Club” was intended to carve out a space of convivium and conversation above the strife of partisan debate, a place to practice friendship above and beyond politics. Most of its bylaws, read aloud at each gathering, were written by Smith, but Churchill allegedly wrote Rule Number 12, which summarizes the purpose of the club: “12. Nothing in the rules or intercourse of the Club shall interfere with the rancour or asperity of party politics.” Even so, the Other Club turned out to be the crucible of the Britain under Churchill: twenty of its members would serve in Churchill’s national government during World War Two, and in July 1945, over a quarter of the entire government were members.

Capacity for friendship is a key trait of the statesman.

            Churchill was particularly keen to develop friendships among parliamentarians. He thought parliamentary democracy especially depends upon friendships among politicians and among citizens. His biographer Martin Gilbert once pointed out, “An essential part of Churchill’s political philosophy was his belief that nothing, even in the bitterest of political controversies, must be allowed to damage the fabric of the society as a whole. It was his strong conviction that within the democratic system political disagreements, whether inside or across party, must not entail personal animosities. Such animosities would, he believed, themselves endanger the democratic process.”7 Indeed Churchill’s friendliness bore fruit in 1940 when he was the only Conservative with whom Labour would work in a national government.

            Birkenhead’s death in 1930 hit Churchill hard and he never again shared a friendship as deep as he had with him, although his friendships with Jan Smuts, Lord Beaverbrook and Roosevelt, though complicated, would come close. Churchill’s essay on Birkenhead is poignant in this regard. It was a memorial to his best friend, who died in 1930, and the entire volume of Great Contemporaries seems to have been inspired by Smith’s own volume, Contemporary Personalities, which had been published in 1924.8 John Colville observes Churchill “never had a truer, cleverer or more congenial friend” than Smith.9 Churchill’s wife, Clementine, who disliked Smith, told Smith’s widow that he had wept for his friend and said several times, “I feel so lonely.”10 And so it seemed for the rest of his life, at least until World War Two.

Darkness in Teheran

            There is a lot of weight to the argument that Churchill and Roosevelt were not and could not have been friends. Churchill did not attend Roosevelt’s funeral. Lend-Lease cost Britain dearly and severely harmed her ability to remain a world power. Roosevelt used his leverage to undermine the British Empire. The two nations spied upon one another. The U.S. was destined to dispense with Great Britain as it and the Soviet Union each took its place as the two great powers.

            Even so, if you admit that statesmanship is a tough business and the types of friendships that statesmen make differ to some degree from ours, I think there are good reasons to regard Churchill and Roosevelt as good friends. Statesmen share what Churchill called the “highest outlook,” which means they bear the greatest burdens of responsibility upon their shoulders. This brings them together in mutual sympathy because only they can understand what the other is going through. But this also keeps them apart because they have the burden of protecting their own nations.

            With this in mind I turn first to the lowest moment of their friendship, the Tehran Conference of late November 1943, when Roosevelt shouldered his friend aside to cement U.S.-Soviet cooperation. After the Big Three conference in Teheran in 1943, Churchill lamented, “I realized at Teheran for the first time what a small nation we are…. There I sat with the great Russia bear on one side of me, with paws outstretched, and on the other side sat the great American buffalo, and between the two sat the poor little English donkey who was the only one, the only one of the three, who knew the right way home.”11

            Teheran was Roosevelt’s first meeting with Stalin.  Like Churchill, Roosevelt placed supreme importance on what we now call “face time” with world leaders. It was also of paramount importance that Stalin see him capable of thinking and acting independently of Churchill and of British interests, for Stalin knew of the friendship and alliance between the two men which caused him to distrust them. Roosevelt knew he had to charm Stalin in order to earn his trust, which was no small task considering Stalin’s paranoid and tyrannical psyche.

            Roosevelt explained his predicament to his Secretary of Labor (1933-45), Frances Perkins:

For the first three days I made absolutely no progress. I couldn’t get any personal connection with Stalin, although I had done everything he asked me to do. I had stayed at his Embassy, gone to his dinners, been introduced to his ministers and generals. He was correct, stiff, solemn, not smiling, nothing human to get hold of. I felt pretty discouraged. If it was all going to be official paper work, there was no sense in my having made this long journey which the Russians had wanted. They couldn’t come to America or any place in Europe for it. I had come there to accommodate Stalin. I felt pretty discouraged because I thought I was making no personal headway. What we were doing could have been done by the foreign ministers.12

            Roosevelt continues to explain to Perkins: “On my way to the conference room that morning we caught up with Winston and I had just a moment to say to him, ‘Winston, I hope you won’t be sore at me for what I am going to do.’ Winston just shifted his cigar and grunted. I must say he behaved very decently afterward.”13 Roosevelt then states: 

I began almost as soon as we got into the conference room. I talked privately with Stalin…. Then I said, lifting my hand up to cover a whisper (which of course had to be interpreted), “Winston is cranky this morning, he got up on the wrong side of his bed.”  A vague smile passed over Stalin’s eyes, and I decided I was on the right track. As soon as I sat down at the conference table, I began to tease Churchill about his Britishness, about John Bull, about his cigars, about his habits. It began to register with Stalin. Winston got red and scowled, and the more he did so, the more Stalin smiled. Finally Stalin broke out into a deep, hearty guffaw, and for the first time in three days I saw light. I kept it up until Stalin was laughing with me, and it was then that I called him “Uncle Joe.” He would have thought me fresh the day before, but that day he laughed and came over and shook my hand. From that time on our relations were personal, and Stalin himself indulged in occasional witticism. The ice was broken and we talked like men and brothers.14

            Roosevelt gambled to connect with the tyrannical soul in Stalin and it paid off: “I saw the light.” Indeed, he describes the victory his gamble earned using the language of friendship: “we talked like men and brothers.”

            No wonder Churchill’s daughter, Mary Soames, judged, “My father was awfully wounded at Teheran. For reasons of state, it seems to me President Roosevelt was out to charm Stalin, and my father was the odd man out. He felt that very keenly…. My father was very hurt, I think.”15

            This episode of high diplomacy was low comedy. Roosevelt resorted to school boy antics of teasing his good friend Churchill in order to bore into Stalin’s icy psyche, and to achieve aims of the national interest and of the alliance. He had to tease Churchill as school boys tease and mercilessly “leave out” boys as a means of managing in-group dynamics. This is the law of the school yard and it is the law of the tribe. But it is not the law of civilized peoples that Churchill once described as “keeping faith with each other, on the practice of honesty, justice, and the rest of the virtues.” In terms of these laws of civility, and in light of Churchill’s understanding of the demands of friendship, Roosevelt took an enormous risk by reverting to the law of what Churchill calls “half-animal, half human creatures.” It took Churchill to behave “very decently afterward” to leaven Roosevelt’s sojourn into this less-than civilized territory.

            But Roosevelt judged the risk of rupturing these bonds worthwhile because of the magnitude of the task. He had to cut through Stalin’s icy soul and make a connection so that he could more easily work with him. Even though he risked Churchill’s friendship in doing so, it is more likely that his friendship with Churchill actually enabled him to tease him. Their friendship gave him the freedom to pursue national interests as well as the goods of the alliance even if it meant risking their friendship by pushing its limits. Indeed, for spirited and great souled statesmen as these two men, such teasing and roughhousing actually form part of the dynamics of their friendships. 

Sunset at Marrakesh

            Permit me to turn now to the high point of their friendship, their trip to see the sunset over Marrakesh earlier that year in January. During their visit to Marrakesh, which concluded their Casablanca meeting, they shared a moment of contemplating of beauty in beholding the sunset over the Atlas Mountains. Churchill told Roosevelt: “I must be with you when you see the sunset on the snows of the Atlas Mountains.”16 There they shared what Aristotle calls a joint perception of the good, the consummate act of virtue friendship, which Aristotle describes in these words:

[O]ne’s being is choiceworthy on account of the awareness of oneself as being good, and such an awareness is pleasant in itself. Therefore one also ought to … share his friend’s consciousness of his existence, and this would come through living together and sharing conversation and thinking; for this would seem to be what living together means in the case of human beings.17

            This act of shared intellectual perception – “sunaisthesis” in Aristotle’s Greek — is the capstone of friendship. The vision friends share of the good and the beautiful is inseparable from their sharing it with one another. It is the point to which the endeavors of individuals, including statesmen, point because without it, all other endeavors are pointless.

            Churchill frequently speaks of the capacity of Roosevelt, Marshall, Marlborough and other statesmen he admires to have a vision of the whole world situation, or “the whole military scene.”  Their viewpoint is synoptic, and their vision is facilitated, enhanced, and even made possible, by friendship with one who also has that same capacity for synoptic vision of the whole situation.  This is also how he describes Marlborough’s friendship with Eugene of Savoy, who were “two bodies with one soul” “working like two lobes of the same brain.”18 Churchill also speaks this way about his other pastime, painting, by drawing a comparison between the painter’s overview of the canvas and the statesman’s overview of the “whole scene”.19

This act of shared intellectual perception – “sunaisthesis” in Aristotle’s Greek — is the capstone of friendship. The vision friends share of the good and the beautiful is inseparable from their sharing it with one another. It is the point to which the endeavors of individuals, including statesmen, point because without it, all other endeavors are pointless.

            After concluding their war planning business in Casablanca, Churchill insisted that he and Roosevelt drive an hour to Marrakesh, which was one of Churchill’s favorite vacation spots. There they visited the residence of American Vice-Consul, Kenneth Pendar, the villa called La Sandia. Churchill and Pendar climbed to the top of the tower, and Churchill counted the number of steps – 60 – on the descent. At Churchill’s behest, Roosevelt allowed two men to carry him up the stairs to see the view. Churchill’s doctor, Moran, described Roosevelt being carried up to the rooftop: “his paralyzed legs dangling like the limbs of a ventriloquist’s dummy, limp and flaccid.”20 Allowing himself to be handled in this way, when he normally went to great lengths to hide his disability, signifies no small amount of trust and fondness for Churchill. Churchill stated, “It’s the most lovely spot in the whole world.” Roosevelt agreed, later describing the view as “the most breath-takingly beautiful he had ever seen.”21 After a few minutes maintaining this intellectual triangle of both beholding the sunset, of Churchill beholding Roosevelt, and perhaps of Roosevelt beholding Churchill (which is shown in a famous New York Times photograph of the moment), Churchill put Roosevelt’s coat around his shoulders. 

            The group concluded the evening with, in Churchill’s words, “a very jolly dinner, about fifteen or sixteen, and we all sang songs. I sang, and the President joined in the choruses, and at one moment was about to try a solo. However, someone interrupted and I never heard this.”22 In a scene comparable to the Darkest Hour Underground scene, choruses complemented the group’s contemplation of the good.

            Upon seeing off Roosevelt at the airport the next day, Churchill said, “He is the truest friend; he has the farthest vision; he is the greatest man I’ve ever known.”23 They had shared this “farthest vision” together. Churchill makes a point of describing how, after seeing off Roosevelt, he painted his only painting during the war from that same tower. He subsequently gave the painting, named “The Tower of Katoubia Mosque,” to Roosevelt.24 The painting completed their shared vision.

Tower of the Koutoubia Mosque. Photo: Courtesy of Christie’s

Singer of Deeds

            As statesman, Churchill understood the role of friendship for his craft. But his statecraft was more than actions and deeds. Recall he won the Nobel Prize not for peace but for literature. At Harrow he won a prize for reciting Macaulay’s “Lays of Ancient Rome” from memory (to show that his poor performance in Greek and Latin meant he was not, in his words, a complete “dunce”) and in My Early Life he recommends a Greek-style paideia of “poetry, songs, dancing, drill and gymnastics” for the young.25 His speeches, correspondence, and writings attest to his view that actions and deeds are accompanied by reflections upon them, in the form of histories, myths, and song. After the war is won, the peace must be won with songs and stories that win over hearts and minds. John F. Kennedy said “he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle. The incandescent quality of his words illuminated the courage of his countrymen.” As I previously mentioned, Churchill chose the hymns and even arranged the deck chairs for the worship service he held with Roosevelt on board the H.M.S. Prince of Wales at Placentia Bay. He composed his speeches in the same format as Biblical psalms. One reviewer of a collection of his speeches proclaimed, “He not only makes laws for his people but writes their songs as well, in the sense that his speeches are battle cries, dirges for the fallen and hymns of victory.”26 Indeed, his Cabinet colleagues complained of his voluminous correspondence and memos that he was fighting the war simply to write the history.

            Churchill would have taken to heart a statement Homer in the Odyssey has Odysseus make to his host, King Alcinous, shortly before he tells the king his own story of suffering:

What a fine thing it is to listen to such a bard

As we have here – the man sings like a god.

The crown of life, I’d say.  There’s nothing better

Than when deep joy holds sway throughout the realm

And banqueters up and down the palace sit in ranks,

Enthralled to hear the bard, and before them all, the tables

Heaped with bread and meats, and drawing wine from a mixing-bowl

The steward makes his rounds and keeps the winecups flowing.

This, to my mind, is the best that life can offer.27

            This passage celebrates festivity as the proper accompaniment of the life of those who are politically free. It is a foundational text that has informed how people in Western civilization have thought about freedom and political friendship. Churchill’s writing, his reflections upon his own actions and deeds, as well as those by others including Marlborough, reflect this relationship of political life, friendship, and festivity. If friends perform deeds and then gather together afterwards to talk or sing about them, then Churchill’s statesmanship consists exactly in this: winning the peace in word and even song. As with Aristotle, the epitome of human life is to be found in friendship and peace, consisting of “living together and sharing conversation and thinking.”

            Churchill reflects on this relationship between the singer and the performer of deeds in his biography of Marlborough, the statement of his greatest political wisdom, and one that, in the writing of it in the early 1930s, taught him much. But it is more than mere biography. It is an act of friendship to his great ancestor as well as to the British nation.

            After devoting hundreds of pages detailing Marlborough’s exertions and wondrous victories against French forces, and defending his ancestor against historians like Macaulay, Churchill surprises the reader by offering a subtle but profound criticism. He criticizes his great ancestor for not writing his own memoir. Marlborough thought Blenheim Palace would be his monument: “He looked to the great stones rising round him into a noble pile as one answer which would repeat itself with the generations.”28  Marlborough thought his deeds spoke for themselves. Churchill seems astonished that Marlborough never bothered to write his memoir: “he seems to have felt sure that the facts would tell the tale.”29

            Churchill observes:

As the Pharoahs built their pyramids, so he sought a physical monument which would certainly stand, if only as a ruin, for thousands of years. About his achievements he preserved a complete silence, offering neither explanations nor excuses for any of his deeds. His answer was to be this great house. This mood has characterized dynasts in all ages, and philosophers in none. Remembrance may be preserved to remote posterity by piling great stones on one another, and engraving deep inscriptions upon them. But fame is not so easily captured.30

            Churchill’s dismissive and even impious reference to his childhood home, Blenheim Palace, as a pile of “great stones” reveals a sharp criticism of his great ancestor. Marlborough failed to appreciate fully the significance of history, to words, which could capture one’s glory. He accuses Marlborough for winning his wars but being too shortsighted and losing the peace. Marlborough’s “monument” pales in comparison to Churchill’s own “monument,” which is how he characterized his own memoirs.31 Churchill would not lose his peace as Marlborough had lost his.

            For his part, Churchill, while not one of the philosophers he alludes to, seems to cast his lot with the “philosophers” whose monuments are words.32 For Churchill, “rhetoric … is not a cheap substitute for action but the very soul of action.”33

            Churchill concludes his remarks about Marlborough’s pile of stones: “His happiness lost much, and his fame gained nothing, by the building of Blenheim. However, Blenheim stands, and Marlborough would probably regard it as having fulfilled its purpose if he returned to earth at this day.”34 But it is Churchill’s biography of Marlborough, not the pile of stones, that “fulfilled its purpose,” that is, completes the political action of Marlborough the nation-builder. That its author grew up in Blenheim Palace is a key part of Churchill’s role in bringing the action of his great ancestor to full fruition.

            Churchill’s biography fulfills Marlborough’s desire to be remembered; it completes Marlborough’s story but on Churchill’s own terms that are beyond Marlborough’s range of vision. In the manner in which Churchill and Roosevelt, and he and Beaverbrook, completed each other’s sentences as friends often do, the biography is as much an act of friendship as it is an act of piety toward his great ancestor.

            By treating Marlborough not simply as a great commander and statesman, but by treating the “Old Corporal” as instrumental in the foundation of the modern English nation, Churchill’s biography is also an English history. He calls his story the red stripe that runs through the riband constituting the Great Britain’s “island story.” Churchill’s tale of Marlborough’s achievements and friendships is a tale of the civic friendship of England, whose story at this stage is “completed” by Churchill - the bard, practitioner, and theorist of political friendship.

            In casting his lot with the “philosophers,” Churchill, in writing the biography, also strives to bridge the gap between thought and practice because it is Churchill’s greatest statement of his political wisdom, which he sums up in terms of friendship: “One rule of conduct alone survives as a guide to men in their wanderings: fidelity to covenants, the honour of soldiers, and the hatred of causing human woe.”35 Churchill reads Marlborough as his contemporary and he hints how Marlborough’s statecraft and his conduct of a war on the continent will provide the model for what needs to be done with Nazi Germany. In writing the biography, and thus preparing for his own statecraft, Churchill becomes that friend of Marlborough who is best equipped to judge his character—two oxen treading out the corn as he describes Marlborough as well as himself.36 As King Alcinous of the Phaikians is ultimately the friend to whom Odysseus sings his song, among “banqueters up and down the palace sit in ranks,” so too does Churchill finds his true friend in political story telling in Marlborough.

“One rule of conduct alone survives as a guide to men in their wanderings: fidelity to covenants, the honour of soldiers, and the hatred of causing human woe.”


            As Aristotle says that a life full of wealth and honor is empty if one also does not have friends, so too Churchill sought those few special friends to share his thoughts and adventures, and to share his vision of the “whole scene.” Churchill’s daughter Sarah reports that when he slipped into his final coma, he remained an artist to the end: “Sometimes his hand would begin to move in painting gestures, and we would know that he was happy. Needless to say, we wondered what particular scene was crossing his mind.”37 Very likely, he was painting the “whole scene” with “perfect comprehensive judgment,” “untiring eye and absolute selflessness,” friends and all.


* Address to: Villanova University, October 29, 2019 and Catholic University of America, October 31, 2019.

John von Heyking is Professor of Political Science at the University of Lethbridge (Canada), where he teaches political philosophy.  He is author of Comprehensive Judgment and Absolute Selflessness: Winston Churchill on Politics as Friendship (2018), The Form of Politics: Aristotle and Plato on Friendship (2016), and Augustine and Politics as Longing in the World (2001). He has coedited numerous volumes including two volumes of the Collected Works of Eric Voegelin and, most recently, Wherefrom Does History Emerge?: Inquiries in Political Cosmogony (2020). 


1 “Horatius,” Lays of Ancient Rome, XXVII.

2 Malcolm Cowley, “Mr. Churchill Speaks,” 537.

3 Stelzer, Dinner With Churchill, 10, citing Martin Gilbert, Road to Victory, 1941-1945, volume 7 of Winston S. Churchill, 664.

4 Andrew Roberts, “Introduction,” in Stelzer, Dinner With Churchill, xiv.

5 Winston Churchill, The Second World War, vol. 4, 62.

6 Churchill, Marlborough, vol. 2, 373. Emphasis added.

7 Gilbert, Churchill’s Political Philosophy, 101–02.

8 Muller, “Introduction,” xxxi. F.E. Smith, Contemporary Personalities.

9 Colville, Winston Churchill and His Inner Circle, 19.

10 Dilks, Churchill and His Company, 26.

11 Meacham, Franklin and Winston, 259, citing Colville to John Wheeler-Bennett, Action This Day: Working with Churchill, 96.

12 Frances Perkins, The Roosevelt I Knew, 83-84. Roberts points out the connection between Roosevelt’s frustration and his subsequent mistreatment, with Stalin, of Churchill (Masters and Commanders, 445). See also Meacham, Franklin and Winston, 264.  Churchill describes his difficulties with making personal contact with Stalin during their first meeting in August 1942 (The Second World War, vol. 4, 436-51).

13 Perkins, The Roosevelt I Knew, 84.

14 Perkins, The Roosevelt I Knew, 84 (emphasis added); Meacham, 265. Churchill mentions none of this in his Second World War, except to say that the “private contact” between Roosevelt and Stalin throughout the conference led him to seek his own one-on-one time with Stalin (Second World War, vol. 4, 331).

15 Meacham, Franklin and Winston, 265-66, quoting from interview with Mary Soames. Unsurprisingly, Churchill reports that at the conclusion of the conference, “we separated in an atmosphere of friendship and unity of purpose, I personally was well content” (The Second World War, vol. 5, 358).

16 Churchill, The Second World War, vol. 4, 621.

17 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1170b10-12.

18 Churchill, Marlborough, vol. 1, 775 and 825.

19 Churchill, “Painting as a Pastime,” Thoughts and Adventures, 318-9.

20 Roberts, Masters and Commanders, 347, citing an unidentified witness.

21 Costigliola, Roosevelt’s Lost Alliances, 182, citing Moran, Churchill at War, 99 (both quotations).

22 Churchill, The Second World War, vol. 4, 695

23 Meacham, Franklin and Winston, 213.

24 Churchill, The Second World War, vol. 4, 622 and Roberts, Masters and Commanders, 347.

25 Churchill, My Early Life, 26, 122.

26 Malcolm Cowley, “Mr. Churchill Speaks,” 537.

27 Homer, Odyssey, IX.1-12.

28 Churchill, Marlborough, vol. 2, 1036.

29 Churchill, Marlborough, vol. 2, 1036.

30 Churchill, Marlborough, vol. 2, 754.

31 James Muller, “Churchill the Writer,” Wilson Quarterly, 18(1) (1994): 38, citing William Deakin, Churchill’s literary assistant.

32 See Plato, Gorgias, 514a-c.

33 Manfred Weidhorn, Churchill’s Rhetoric and Political Discourse, (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1987), xii.

34 Churchill, Marlborough, vol. 2, 755.

35 Churchill, Marlborough, vol. 2, 996.

36 Deuteronomy 25:4. Churchill, Marlborough, vol. 2, 806.  Churchill responded with this line when Charles Masterman piously admonished him for being too ambitious (Paul Addison, “Destiny, History, and Providence: The Religion of Winston Churchill” In Public and Private Doctrine: Essays in British History Presented to Maurice Cowling, edited by Michael Bentley, 236-50, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 243).

37 Sarah Churchill, Keep on Dancing, 333-36. See Rose, The Literary Churchill, 448.


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