In Gateway to Statesmanship, John A. Burtka IV, president of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, seeks to revive the tradition of mirror-for-princes literature, a project both timely and timeless. Criticism and distrust of political leaders are not confined to the modern age; complaints about those in power are as old as politics itself—as are attempts to discover principles that would improve their conduct and performance. Plato’s Socrates suggested that turmoil would continue until wisdom could be united to political rule, a rare quality present in few statesmen. Across history, contemporary Americans that have lost faith in their leaders are not outliers in their crisis of confidence. Bearing our present difficulties in mind, self-preservation confronts us with an urgent need to recover the time-tested principles of political leadership. 

To aid us in this project, Burtka has assembled a collection of texts ranging from ancient to modern and spanning different cultures, creeds, and political systems. The texts serve both as mirrors, in service of the self-examination, correction, and guidance of leaders themselves; and lenses, through which the ruled may evaluate political leadership. The latter function is crucial in the American context, in which the people have a role in choosing their leaders.  Good government hinges upon holding our elected representatives to high standards and the cultivation of a new generation of Americans who can lead well and renew the nation.     

The tradition of crafting such tools for reflection and assessment reached its pinnacle in the Renaissance, but is far older and has persisted, with modifications, into the modern world.  As Burtka notes, the mirrors-for-princes tradition, though diverse chronologically and contextually, offers wisdom to guide political life. We need not, Burtka argues, be merely passive observers of our political fate.  With careful study and discernment, we can recover guiding principles that can be applied across the particulars of place and time. 

This combination of the universal and the particular is at the heart of what we call statesmanship. According to Aristotle, prudence is the most important virtue for a political leader. It may be defined as the pursuit of the good in the light of the particular.. The prudent leader knows what is good for the political community to do, but he also considers the circumstances in which it must be done. 

But the texts of the tradition are not in full agreement about the appropriate ends of political leadership or the means through which to achieve them. Tensions run through the fabric of the advice we receive from different authors: pursuit of the moral good vs. worldly success; mercy or cruelty; honesty or deceit; fear or love; humility or condescension; considered philosophically or actively practiced within different regimes. Burtka’s introduction helps us navigate the textual landscape by dividing it into four periods—ancient, medieval, renaissance, and modern—and by situating the counsel of each author in the context of the others. 

Burtka spotlights the Renaissance as a crucial moment when writers arrayed themselves on the side of rupture or synthesis when confronting the legacy of the Greco-Roman tradition which, within the context of Western Christianity, brought many of the tensions to the forefront of opposing counsels. The writings of Machiavelli serve as the primary disjunct between Christian and pagan traditions. As the Florentine thinker saw things, Christian rulers should abandon their moral precepts and pursue political power uninhibitedly for its own sake.

That is a useful place to start, but the classical tradition is not monolithically supportive of Machiavelli’s views. Not all of the ancients were useful for his purposes—Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero were all problematic—so the Florentine had to pick and choose. Nor was he asserting ideas altogether new, though he did so unashamedly in a contrary environment. In this way, Machiavelli is an illuminating writer for restating and reformulating the debates that had always been going on and would continue after him. 

Burtka finishes his survey by extracting “12 Laws of Leadership.” “Laws” is a strong word, particularly considering the aforementioned tensions, where such laws seem to have been the object of intense debate over history. Burtka stations himself on the side of virtue and justice, rightly so, and so the laws he gives us point in those directions. But we must be wary of the implication that success (however defined) can be produced as a chef follows a recipe. Every new situation presents its own challenges. Rules of behavior train the mind, but they cannot fully encompass the particular facts before us, nor can they remove the necessity for a living prudence.

Burtka further suggests that these laws are equally applicable and useful outside of politics for CEOs, entrepreneurs, and captains of sports teams—anyone striving to be a “prince” in their domain. That is a common assertion in modern leadership literature, and there must be some truth in it. But it is not simply so. In the Politics, Aristotle cautions against the belief that there is one science of ruling which differs only in the number of those ruled, not in kind. Who you are leading and for what purpose makes a difference as to how you lead.

Aptly titled, this book is a gateway to discussion of these issues and more. Burtka has given us a very valuable work that will be useful in reviving meaningful reflection on political leadership. May it reinvigorate us as the author intends.