How to Get Ahead in Washington: Lessons from the Renaissance and Baroque Eras, Part 2

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Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a two-part series. The first was published yesterday.

This scenario may sound immediately familiar to War on the Rocks readers: In the midst of an animated discussion at a work function, your interlocutor’s gaze suddenly begins to wander, slowly sweeping around the room, logging faces and names, scanning for someone potentially more useful to talk to. Subtle changes begin to slowly unfold. Your colleague’s expression gradually grows more vacant, their conversational fillers increasingly robotic. And then, in the blink of an eye, they have swept with unsuspected grace and celerity across the windowless conference room to greet the tardy assistant secretary. Hovering around the visiting potentiary with a nervous grin, they nod profusely, laugh loudly, and strategically position their body in between the target of their solicitations and the closest exit. Slowly but surely, a bunch of fellow fawners begin to clot around the hapless guest, who glumly abandons one of the main objects of their visit — the complimentary stale cookies placed near the registration table.

The methods deployed in such an instance may seem hopelessly transparent, but they are also wonderfully timeless. In Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, the diplomat Federico Fregoso describes such oleaginous displays of naked careerism with bemusement, relating how, in his more sartorially-fixated era, grasping courtiers would immediately latch on to those who seemed more visibly wealthy and powerful,

There are some fools who, even if they are in the company of the best friend in the world, upon meeting with someone better dressed, attach themselves at once to him; and then, if they happen on someone better dressed, they do the same again. And if the prince should pass through the square, church or some other public place, then they elbow their way past everyone until they stand beside him; and even if they have nothing to say to him, they insist on talking, and hold forth at great length, laughing and clapping their hands to make a show of having important business, so that the crowd might see they are in favor.



Equally, there have always been compulsive name-droppers, those who pepper every other sentence with a reference to some bigwig with whom are supposedly on close, nay, friendly terms. In these instances, the individual in question should be simply mentioned by his or her first name — thus reinforcing the sense of casual familiarity and forcing dazed conversation partners to meekly seek confirmation of the illustrious contact’s identity. If a little bit of mansplaining and/or general pontificating can be sprinkled into the conversational stew, so much the better.

La Bruyère, one of the 17th century’s most brilliant satirists, famously portrayed such a pedant — whom he called Arrias — in his wildly popular and controversial Caractères — with a biting vignette that is worth quoting here in full:

Arrias has read and seen everything, at least he would lead you to think so; he is a man of universal knowledge, or pretends to be, and would rather tell a falsehood than be silent or appear to ignore anything. Some person is talking at meal-time, in the house of a man of rank, of a northern country; he interrupts and prevents him telling what he knows; he goes hither and thither in that distant state as if he were a native of it; he discourses about the habits of its court, the native women, the laws and customs of the land; he tells many little stories which happened there, thinks them very entertaining and is the first to laugh loudly at them. Somebody presumes to contradict him, and clearly proves to him that what he says is untrue. Arrias is not disconcerted; on the contrary, he grows angry at the interruption, and exclaims: “I aver and relate nothing but what I know on excellent authority; I had it from Sethon, the French ambassador at that court, who only a few days ago came back to Paris, and is a particular friend of mine; I asked him several questions, and he replied to them all without concealing anything.” He continues his story with greater confidence than he began it, till one of the company informs him that the gentleman whom he has been contradicting was Sethon himself, but lately arrived from his embassy.

We’ve all met Arrias, that fellow who has more of a comment than a question, or who derives his authoritative insights on complex foreign societies and their atavistic “ancestral hatreds” from deep discussions with local cab drivers. The eerie familiarity of La Bruyère’s character is a valuable reminder that, whether in17th century Paris or 21st century Washington, foreign policy establishments are smaller than they seem, and what goes around often comes around.

Indeed, one of the most important character traits for any secretary, innumerable Renaissance and early modern texts argued, was that of discretion. After all — the very etymology of the word — derived from the Latin secretum (meaning a secluded, hidden place), implied that the secretary’s role, first and foremost, was to be a tight-lipped custodian of state secrets. This natural predilection for discretion, it was emphasized, should ideally extend to every aspect of a high-ranking public servant’s social interactions. Thus, noted Gracián, one should constantly strive to conceal one’s ambitions and control one’s outward display of emotions:

Passions are breaches in the mind. The most practical kind of knowledge is dissimulation; whoever plays their hand openly runs the risk of losing. Let the reserve of caution compete against the scrutiny of the perceptive; against the sharp eyes of the lynx, the ink of the cuttlefish. Don’t let your desires be known so that they won’t be anticipated, either by opposition or flattery.

Moreover, he suggested, familiarity often bred contempt. One should avoid confiding in someone one doesn’t fully trust; it was often more judicious to hide the full measure of one’s capabilities and bide one’s time, “The circumspect man,” he ventured,

If he wants to be venerated by everyone, should prevent the true depths of his knowledge or his courage being plumbed. He should allow himself to be known, but not fully understood. No one should establish the limits of their abilities, because of the dangers of having their illusions shattered. He should never allow anyone to grab everything about him. Greater veneration is created by conjecture and uncertainty over the extent of our ability than by firm evidence of this, however vast this may be.

Guicciardini was less bleakly misanthropic in his outlook, but nevertheless stressed the importance of learning how to keep one’s mouth shut, especially when tempted to talk ill of other people within one’s professional network:

You should guard yourself against doing anything that can bring you harm but no profit. And so you should never speak ill of any man, absent or present, unless it be advantageous or necessary. For it is madness to make enemies without reason.

“I remind you of this,” Guicciardini hectors his reader, “because nearly everyone is guilty of this sort of levity.” The Florentine fully recognized that making enemies was sometimes simply unavoidable, especially if one was a person of principle, and that in this world, unless you are dead, you cannot avoid doing things occasionally that will offend someone.” Nevertheless:

If either necessity or contempt induces you to speak ill of another, at least be careful to say things that will offend only him. For instance, if you want to insult a particular person, do not speak ill of his country, his family or his relatives.

On Managing Up and Working for Difficult Individuals 

We are all fated, at some stage in our careers, to work under a difficult supervisor. He or she may be erratic, temperamental, or display a tendency to micromanage. They may be emotionally abusive, absent-minded, or overly susceptible to flattery. Or perhaps they have succeeded, at long last, in rising to their level of incompetence. From the tales of baroque dysfunction leaked by disenchanted congressional interns on Dear White Staffers, to the anecdotes furtively shared by wide-eyed young think tank employees nervously clutching at their happy hour pints, DC’s foreign policy trenches overflow with tales of mercurial senators, eccentric appointees, and megalomaniacal pundits. More grizzled Washingtonians have long learned the importance of “managing up,” and of working to immediately establish a stable and productive working relationship with their hierarchical superior. This issue was also at the heart of many early modern manuals of statecraft, with long-suffering advisors and secretaries readily sharing their insights on the art of providing good counsel under imperfect leadership. Of course, the stakes for them were often far higher — thankfully we no longer have to worry about banishment, destitution, summary execution, or posthumous dismemberment.

Gracián characteristically took a somewhat fatalistic approach to the issue of managing up, with the sardonic Spaniard advising that one “should get used to the bad temperaments of those you deal with, like getting used to ugly faces.” He then goes on to suggest that this is “particularly advisable in situations of dependency,” before adding,

There are horrible people you can neither live with nor live without. It’s a necessary skill, therefore, to get used to them, as to ugliness, so as you’re not surprised each time their harshness manifests itself. At first they’ll frighten you, but gradually your initial horror will disappear and caution will anticipate or tolerate the unpleasantness.

Signor Ottaviano Fregoso, a former Genoese doge and a lead interlocutor in the fictionalized dialogue of Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, is altogether less blasé. Stressing the moral responsibility of the advisor to steer their wayward or inattentive prince in the right direction, Fregoso emphasizes the need for tact and finesse — or what he somewhat patronizingly terms “salutary deception,” 

The courtier will be able to lead his prince by the austere path of virtue, adorning it with shady fronds and strewing it with pretty flowers to lessen the tedium of the toilsome journey for one whose strength is slight… beguiling him with salutary deception; like shrewd doctors who often spread the edge of the cup with some sweet cordial when they wish to give a bitter-tasting medicine to sick and over-delicate children.

In short, the patriotic public servant should not hesitate to engage in a certain measure of careful edulcoration if not outright manipulation — particularly if the leader he or she serves is inattentive, inexperienced, or inadequate to the task at hand. Think, for example, of the elaborate and by now well-documented methods concocted by despondent National Security Council staff in their bids to get former President Donald Trump to pay attention during his daily intelligence briefs. 

Other writers, however, were less comfortable with such finespun and gently insinuating efforts. To the contrary, argues Francis Bacon in his Essays, one must avoid sterile sycophancy, and labor to constantly provide the most honest form of counsel — even if that means voicing unwelcome truths, irritating one’s superior, or momentarily forestalling a popular course of action. “The greatest truth between man and man,” he solemnly avers, “is the trust of giving counsel,” before noting that,

Things will have their first, or second agitation: if they be not tossed upon the arguments of counsel, they will be tossed upon the waves of fortune; and be full of inconstancy, doings and undoings, like the reelings of a drunken man.

The key, he adds, is not to overthink things — and mentally exhaust oneself by constantly seeking to put oneself in the advisee’s headspace. “Counselors should not be too speculative into their sovereign’s person,” he thus cautions, “The true composition of a counselor is rather to be skillful in this master’s business than in his nature; for then he is like to advise him, and not feed his humor.” Conversely, he later observes, good decision-makers should remain mindful of the fact that many of their advisors will be overeager to please them, with professional obsequiousness warping their policy prescriptions. Thus, a good king, when presiding over a council meeting, should initially hold his cards close to his chest, and let conversations between his lead advisors flow freely, taking care not to “open his inclination too much, in that which he propoundeth; for else counselors will but take the wind of him, and instead of giving him free counsel, sing him a song of placebo.”

On Knowing When to Retire

And what happens when counselors and ministers get too comfortably entrenched in government? When they begin to bloviate on issues on which they have little to no expertise, or gluttonously accumulate too many portfolios that combine great prestige with frustratingly nebulous boundaries? As world-weary operatives have long acknowledged, we are all at risk of professional hubris, of overstaying our welcome and not knowing when to retire, and of thereby tarnishing our own legacy. Gracián thus bluntly warns his readers,

Don’t hang around to be a setting sun. The sensible person’s maxim: abandon things before they abandon you. Know how to turn an ending into a triumph…  Someone sharp retires a racehorse at the right time, not waiting until everyone laughs when it falls in mid-race.

Unfortunately, however, our own susceptibility to blandishments and lack of self-awareness tends to work against us. Over the course of a long and distinguished career, vernal confidence slowly calcifies into senescent self-satisfaction. And under the moist, palliative warmth of public approbation the accuracy of one’s perceptions of one’s own capabilities can easily begin to molder and crumble. As La Rochefoucauld noted, all too frequently,

We are elevated to a rank and dignity above ourselves. We are often engaged in a new profession for which nature has not adapted us. All these conditions have each an air which belong to them, but which does not always agree with our natural manner. This change of fortune often changes our air and our manner, and augments the air of dignity, which is always false when it is too marked, and when it is not united and amalgamated with that which nature has given us.

Some writers, such as the supremely capable Philippe de Béthune, who enjoyed an unusually long and distinguished career as a diplomat under three successive French rulers  — Henri IV, Marie de Medici, and Louis XIII  — suggested that as a matter of national policy, higher levels of administration should be age diverse. Older, more experienced ministers would thus help temper the ardor and callowness of more youthful royal council members, while the latter would keep their “colder and slower” older colleagues on their toes and prevent them from slipping into sleepy self-satisfaction. Francis Bacon, in his essay “Of Youth and Age” largely came to the same conclusion, observing that ideally one should “compound employments of both(younger and more senior officials), “because the virtues of either age may correct the defects of both.” In a characteristically eloquent passage, the Jacobean statesman observed that,

Young men, in the conduct and management of actions, embrace more than they can hold; stir more than they can quiet; fly to the end, without consideration of the means and degrees; pursue some few principles, which they have chanced upon absurdly; care not to innovate, which draws unknown conveniences; use extreme remedies at first, and, that which doubleth all error, will not acknowledge or retract them; like an unready horse, that will neither stop nor turn. Men of age object too much, consult too long, adventure too little, repent too soon, and seldom drive business home to the full period, but content themselves with a mediocrity of success.

These observations and staffing proposals failed to address, however, the more fundamental underlying issue La Rochefoucauld alluded to — the ubiquity of what we now term the Peter Principle — i.e. the fact that individuals tend to get promoted to a level of “respective incompetence.” Moreover, as revered Roman historians such as Tacitus had long contended, power and prominence not only corrupts, it also liberates and exposes — unveiling and unleashing previously recessed character traits. Thus, lamented Ottaviano Fregoso,

The office shows the man: for just as vases that are cracked cannot readily be detected so long as they are empty, yet if liquid be put into them, show at once just where the defect lies — in like manner corrupt and depraved minds rarely disclose their defects save when they are filled with authority; because they are unable to bear the heavy weight of power, and so give way and pour out on every side greed, pride, wrath, insolence, and those tyrannical practices which they have within them.

On Not Losing One’s Sense of Self

How, then, could one ensure that one rose in the service of one’s country without succumbing to hubris, vanity, or one’s own rank ineptitude? Primarily, argued Montaigne, by engaging in an effort of continuous introspection and ruthless self-assessment. All too often, he observed, he had witnessed talented, idealistic individuals be irredeemably transformed over the course of their ascension, unable to recall the “distinction between the symbols and the office, and the ordinary man who fills it.” The earthy essayist and politician quipped that he had thus seen,

Some who transform and transubstantiate themselves into as many shapes and new beings as they undertake jobs, who carry their honored condition with them to the very privy… and who swell and puff up their souls, along with their natural way of speaking.

One should remind oneself of one’s humbler beginnings, he advised, avoid completely losing oneself in one’s work, and continue to cultivate many sources of moral and intellectual influence. Try to be more like Brutus, he offered, who, Plutarch tells us, took time to work on a study of Polybius on the eve of the battle of Philippi. This bout of intense inner reflection may not have helped him avert his tragic fate, but it did showcase his intellectual and moral worth for posterity. For only little souls, buried under the weight of affairs,” did not know how to occasionally detach themselves from the present to look beyond the pinched horizons of their own daily existence. Engaging with the timeless beauty of art and literature helped nurture empathy and nourished the soul, while studying the lessons of history helped foster humility, put the mundane humdrum of the present into perspective, and honed political judgment. During the challenging period of his exile from Florence, a disgraced Machiavelli — who was himself desperate to reenter public life — had famously described how he found a measure of comfort in the company of great poets, authors, and historians from bygone eras,

On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them.

Writing a half-century later, Montaigne could only approve of this ritualistic act of silent communion. Indeed, in one of the most famous and stirring passages of the Essays, he remarks that every human being, regardless of his or her responsibilities and/or station in life, should seek to preserve for themselves “a backshop” of the soul, “wholly our own and entirely free, wherein to settle our true liberty, our principal solitude and retreat.” Self-reflection, he was convinced, could exert a welcome restraining effect on one’s petty ambitions, allowing one to slowly reacquaint oneself with what made a life spent in government genuinely meaningful and worthwhile: the quiet dignity of public service, the uplifting grandeur of civic patriotism, the wholesome pride tied to enacting positive change. After all, he added, greatness of the soul is “not so much in pressing upward and forward as knowing how to govern and circumscribe oneself.” 

Despite its gallery of slimy sycophants and haughty hypocrites, and notwithstanding its winding maze of moral snares and personal hazards, there remained a vital, even noble, aspect to entering government service. As Montaigne’s intellectual fellow traveler and close friend, the theologian Pierre Charron stated, renouncing all participation in public life through a bloated sense of high-mindedness was simply another form of pridefulness parading as virtue, which deserved, therefore, to be “rigorously condemned.”

To flee the world and hide oneself, for whatever private or individual motive, while we have the means to profit another person, and aid the public, is to become a deserter, to bury one’s talent, to hide one’s light. 

Instead, with a stoic measure of self-discipline, one must repeatedly remind oneself of one’s intellectual limitations and moral imperfections, and of the need for continuous self-improvement. “We must always know how to distinguish and separate ourselves from our public charges,” he urged, echoing his friend from Bordeaux, before reminding his readers that,

The skillful man will perform his office well but never forget to judge clearly the folly, the vice, the knavishness he finds there. He will exercise his charge because this is the practice in his country; it is useful to the public and can also be to himself; this is the way the world runs and he should do nothing to damage it. One must make use and avail oneself of the world as one finds it; but nevertheless consider it a thing alien to oneself, know how to enjoy oneself apart from it, commune confidently with one’s own inner goodness, and at the worst walk by oneself.

Pierre Charron, like all the other weathered policymakers cited in this essay, was under no illusions as to the difficulties tied to such a delicate internal balancing act. Nevertheless, he and his counterparts in early modern England, France, Italy, and Spain all deemed it necessary to put their detailed recommendations in writing, not only for the benefit of their contemporaries in government, but also for that of their successors. Their vibrant discussions of the ethics and challenges of working in policy are not just deeply soulful — they are also often mordantly witty and surprisingly relevant.

 So next time you are browsing through a second-hand bookstore, feeling downcast after the most recent bout of bureaucratic wrangling or professional backstabbing, veer away from the self-help and business psychology aisles, with their brazen lettering, blunt recommendations, and catchy titles. Instead, pick up a musty, dog-eared copy of Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, Montaigne’s Essays, or Baltasar Gracián’s Art of Wordly Wisdom. After all, as Harry Truman famously said after departing the “great white jail” of the White House, “the only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.” 



Iskander Rehman is an Ax:son Johnson Fellow at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs, and the Senior Fellow for Strategic Studies at the American Foreign Policy Council. He is a contributing editor at War on the Rocks and can be followed on twitter @IskanderRehman .

Image: This is a faithful photographic reproduction of Andrea Mantegna’s Court of Gonzaga, accessed via Wikimedia Commons