How to Get Ahead in Washington: Lessons from the Renaissance and Baroque Eras, Part 1


Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series

In the winter of 1935, a freshman senator from Missouri arrived in the District of Columbia after having driven cross-country for over 1,000 miles. With almost no legislative experience or friends in Washington, he was, in his own words, green as grass,” and as “timid as a country boy arriving on the campus of a great university for the first year.” One day, shortly after the nervous Missourian’s arrival, J. Hamilton “Ham” Lewis of Illinois ambled across the Senate floor and sat down next to his junior colleague. The flamboyant, pink toupee-wearing Democratic majority whip then proceeded to dispense a welcome piece of advice: “Harry, don’t start out with an inferiority complex,” he said. “For the first six months you’ll wonder how the hell you got here, and after that you’ll wonder how the hell the rest of us got here.” Truman never forgot this initial act of kindness and seems to have taken the advice to heart. He approached his positions as a senator, vice president, and then as “accidental president” with gravity and dedication, yet always managed to maintain a certain ironic detachment from the seedier aspects of domestic politics. Occasionally, the genial, bespectacled Midwesterner would startle his acquaintances, jesting that, had he not opted for politics, one of his only other options — given his atrocious eyesight — might have been to be a piano player in a Kansas City whorehouse. Maybe this would have ultimately proven to be a more rewarding profession, he would then ruefully mutter.

The 33rd U.S. president’s mixed feelings with regard to life in Washington would no doubt be familiar to anyone who has worked in our nation’s capital — or indeed in the sphere of policy and politics more broadly. For all of its deeper meaning and sense of purpose, working in government can often be exhausting, disappointing, and unedifying. The world of politics has ever been one of muddy compromise and rugged imperfection — something of which Truman, a voracious reader of history, was well aware. Whereas Truman, like many other of his fellow presidents, frequently turned to the writings of the founding fathers or ancients for moral solace and intellectual guidance, this essay will seek to prize open another, less regularly consulted treasure trove of insights for War on the Rocks readers — the large, heterogenous body of works which fall under the “mirrors for secretaries” tradition of the late Renaissance and early modern periods. Topics discussed will range from the importance of discretion, to knowing how to balance expertise with pragmatism, guard against flattery, and deal with a difficult boss. And for those readers who remain convinced that their brilliance and relevance will shine eternal, it will relay 16th and 17th century advice on knowing when to retire. There are few richer — or more enjoyable — periods than those two event-packed centuries for contemporary policymakers to explore. Strewn across these works of darkly humorous genius, we can all recognize, to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “our own rejected thoughts, coming back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” 

Self-Help for Policymakers: Treasure Troves of the Post-Renaissance

The period stretching from the late Renaissance to the early Baroque era was one of enormous political, intellectual, and diplomatic upheaval. The increased sophistication of the early modern state, its growing centralization, the heightened intricacy of its bureaucratic apparatus — complete with its teetering mounds of paperwork and endless reams of epistolary exchanges — all of these developments required chronically overworked rulers to find safe and effective ways to delegate their authority, administer their newly sprawling domains and implement their increasingly far-reaching reforms. Institutionally, this led both to the mushrooming across Europe of small governing councils composed of tight cadres of ministers and royal counselors, each often operating at the heart of their own webs of patronage and clientele, and to the rise of the figure of the secretary — the discreet and dedicated public servant who acted at the heart of the sprawling new “letterocracy” which had extended its dry tendrils across the chancelleries, ministries, and embassies of the continent. Paperwork, rightly notes historian Paul Dover, had become “the demon of early modern statecraft.” Kings, popes, and doges — all found themselves gasping for air under a veritable deluge of memorandums and correspondence. Philip II, as Geoffrey Parker has shown in his vivid study of the Spanish monarch, was frequently driven to despair by “these devils, my papers”, with up to 16,000 separate petitions being sent to his desk over the course of a single year. Within this newly saturated information environment, the role of the secretary, ambassador, or counselor was not only to filter, distill, and interpret these incoming torrents of data, but also to provide clear and actionable guidance to their overwhelmed rulers. 



This was particularly true with regard to statecraft. The conduct of diplomacy had undergone a series of profound transformations over the course of the Renaissance, as the practice of establishing permanent embassies — which first took root in Italy in the mid-15h century — progressively spread across Europe. With the generalization of these more elaborate forms of diplomatic machinery, resident ambassadors, nuncios, and intelligence officers, finely attuned to every minor geopolitical tremor or subtle shift in the balance of power, had begun to feed a continuous flow of information back to their capitals — an intensified bureaucratic process which, in turn, greatly accelerated the rhythm of state-to-state interactions. As the great 20th century historian Garrett Mattingly notes in his landmark study of Renaissance diplomacy, the sensitivity with which these new resident ambassadors, “servants of the sacred egoism of their respective states,” monitored their continent’s fluctuating diplomatic weather patterns, both helped preserve a delicate equilibrium and induced a climate of general apprehension, one of beady-eyed mutual watchfulness.” 

Being an ambassador, secretary, or advisor in this brave new world was no easy task. All these early modern operatives understood that the preservation of their privileged positions was not only subject to the whims of their patrons — it was also contingent on their mastery of the complexities of the arcana imperii (the mysteries of state) and on their practical wisdom, or prudence in the classical, Aristotelian sense. Their political, and often physical, survival also hinged on a grubbier set of skills — how to navigate the treacherous shoals of court politics, skirt snake pits of deadly intrigue, and choose the right faction. The excitements and dangers tied to such a high-stakes existence helped spawn a new literary genre: the self-help guide for government secretaries and counselors, whether in the form of short treatises, satirical texts, neat compilations of maxims, or recommendations nested within larger, more philosophically-minded essays. Earlier generations of political theorists, from Xenophon to John of Salisbury and Christine of Pizan, had churned out “mirrors of princes,” elegantly crafted treatises which sought, by drawing on religious, philosophical, and historical lessons, to shape and guide the actions of a just monarch. These new works were different — they were aimed not so much at rulers as at those toiling underneath them, the ink-stained hands scribbling away at the frontlines of power and policy — from the impecunious young secretary to the conniving cardinal or esteemed ambassador. Less formal, more irreverent, and often deeply insightful, they constitute a veritable wellspring of worldly wisdom — albeit one that remains sadly underexplored by contemporary policymakers.

Here follows a small sampling of this wry wit and what it can teach us, with choice excerpts from Italy, France, Spain, and England, ranging from Francis Bacon’s Essays (1597) to Cardinal Richelieu’s Political Testament (published posthumously, in 1688), Giovanni Botero’s The Reason of State (1589), Baldassare Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier (1528), La Rochefoucauld’s Moral Maxims and Reflections (1665), Baltasar Gracián’s The Art of Worldly Wisdom (1647), Jean de la Bruyère’s Characters (1687), Francesco Guicciardini’s Maxims and Reflections (circa 1530), Philippe de Béthune’s The Counsellor of State (1633) Michel de Montaigne’s Essays (circa 1580), and Pierre Charron’s Of Wisdom (1608). Each of these writers, having attained a certain level of prominence in their field — whether secular or religious — was intimately familiar with the trials and tribulations of public office and the vagaries of court politics.

On Balancing Expertise With Pragmatism, and Thoughtfulness with Decisiveness

For all these writers-cum-statesmen, there was little doubt, first of all, that experience and expertise were the most invaluable attributes in government; indeed only the harebrained and foolhardy would think otherwise. “Let no one trust so much in native intelligence that he believes it to be sufficient without the help of experience,” warned Francesco Guicciardini, for, “no matter what his natural endowments, any man who has been in a position of responsibility will admit that experience attains many things which natural gifts alone could never attain.” In addition to a rich and variegated life experience (which could be further enriched by travel and military service), policymakers should be able to draw on a deep reservoir of learning — one which could then irrigate their everyday decisions, helping fertilize a carefully cultivated long-term vision. As Bacon observed, “expert men can execute, and perhaps judge of particulars, one by one, but the general counsels, and the plots and marshalling of affairs, come best from those that are learned.” The ever-caustic Gracián, for his part, asserted that the only opinion any practiced government hand should fret about was that of the qualified expert. “Half the world is laughing at the other half, and all are fools,” the Jesuit dismissively sneered,

Either everything is good or everything bad, depending on people’s opinions. What one pursues, another flees. Whoever wants to make their own opinion the measure of all things is an insufferable fool. Perfection doesn’t depend on one person’s approval: tastes are as plentiful as faces, and as varied. There’s not a single failing without its advocate…. The measure of true satisfaction is the approval of reputable men who are experts in the relevant field.

Yet while all these early modern commentators concurred on the value of learning and experience, they were also quick to point to the need to balance this same thoughtfulness with a capacity for pragmatism and decisiveness. Unfortunately, they remarked, the ideal scholar-practitioner was exceedingly hard to find. Instead, a whole medley of bookish attributes — from an excessive fondness for theoretical abstractions to a tendency to get lost in the weeds, or harbor a roseate belief in the power of human rationality — often proved to be ill-suited to the more fast-paced, rough-and-tumble world of policy. Bacon thus hastened to caveat his earlier observations on the importance of contemplative study with the following cautionary statement: “To spend too much time in studies is sloth; to use them too much for ornament is affectation; to make judgment wholly by their rules, is the humor of a scholar.”

In this, he was joined by Richelieu, with the redoubtable French chief minister inveighing in his Political Testament against the risks tied to hiring scholastic pedants,

The qualifications for a [royal] counselor do not include a pedantic mind. There is nothing more dangerous for the state than those who wish to govern by maxims they have learned from books. They do, indeed, often ruin countries this way… The counselors require only goodness and firmness of mind, stable judgement, true source of wisdom, a reasonable acquaintance with literature, a general knowledge of history and of the organization of existing states around the world, especially including the home country.

Guicciardini also warned of the perils of trying to superimpose one’s idealized intellectual standards of rationality onto one’s opponent. The Florentine noted that during the fierce wars which had devastated the Italian peninsula over the course of much of his life, he had witnessed his fellow statesmen succumb to this intellectual fallacy time and time again,

In discussions of state, I have often seen men make mistakes when they judged what this or that prince will do according to reason, and not what he will do according to his nature of his character. If you want to judge, for instance, what the King of France will do, you must pay more attention to the nature and customs of a Frenchman than to how a prudent man should act.

This critique remains more than relevant — indeed it could no doubt apply today, to those who believed, according to their favored preconceptions or disembodied conceptions of rationality that Vladimir Putin could never “logically” take the fateful decision to launch a full-scale invasion of a country as large as Ukraine.

More broadly, Guicciardini suggests, even the most brilliant of counselors should retain a certain degree of intellectual humility, remaining mindful of the role of contingency, of the power of fortuna, and of the nigh-impossibility of accurately predicting certain developments. “The things of this world are so unstable, and depend upon so many accidents,” he sighs, that “it is very hard to form any judgment concerning the future,” before adding, “We see from experience that the predictions of wise men are nearly always wrong.” In some instances, history might seem to suddenly accelerate, with events unfolding at an alarming pace, outrunning a policymaker’s ability to understand them. In many other cases, however, “things destined to die not by a single blow but by gradual decay last much longer than people believe at first.” This was particularly true, he posited, when over the course of a protracted war statesmen held out hopes for an adversary state’s general collapse. Similarly, while some regimes subject to severe internal strains may, on occasion, appear on the verge of crumbling overnight, in reality — as contemporary Iranian, Venezuelan, and North Korean examples sadly show us — their dogged survival can often last far longer than anticipated. 

Finally, it was possible for someone overly enamored with the snaking subtleties of their own intellect to lose themselves in trifling nuances, or to spend too much time locked in idle cogitation. Over the course of his storied career, Richelieu came to the conclusion that some temperaments, while brilliant, were simply not suited to diplomacy. Like the current, highly cerebral French president with his confusingly labyrinthine statements on Russia and the war in Ukraine, these brainiacs’ fondness for dialectic and complexity, regardless of the goodness of their intentions, ended up diluting the clarity and effectiveness of their overall message,

Just as dimwits are not good negotiators, so there are certain minds so finely drawn and delicately organized as to be even less well suited, since they become overly subtle about everything. They are, so to speak, like those who break the points of needles by trying to make them too fine.

Botero was of the same opinion. When it came to the formulation of grand strategy, the Savoyard observed, a certain degree of austere simplicity was to be welcomed. Needlessly intricate strategies he noted, had the disadvantage of presenting more potential points of failure:

Counsel ought not to be valued because they have more of the subtle and the shrewd; for the most part these do not succeed because inasmuch as their subtlety is greater, their execution must be more rightly on the mark. This cannot ordinarily be achieved because grand projects require for their execution many means and, as a result, meet with many unanticipated situations. And so as the more intricately a clock is put together and assembled, so much the more easily it fails to work and to tell time accurately, so designs and projects that require a minute subtlety for the most part do not succeed.

Inordinately ruminative intellects, which obsessively weighed the pros and cons of every decision, could end up pursuing foreign policies that were too reactive and cautious. After all, prudence as it was then universally understood, was the commanding virtue, at the heart of a philosophy of political action. Saint Thomas Aquinas, in his hugely influential discussion of the cardinal virtues, had argued that the act of command — which followed the acts of deliberation and judgment — was the chief raison d’etre of practical reason or prudentia. Dithering indecisiveness was a form of negligence — quite literally of not (nec) being able to choose (eligens) — and was thus a sin “belonging to imprudence.” It was therefore vital, emphasized Gracián, to learn how to balance reflection with speed of execution, primarily through a mental sorting process which he and others termed “diligence,” 

Diligence carries out quickly what intelligence decides upon slowly. Fools love haste; since they never see any difficulty, they act without reflecting. In contrast, the wise are often too unhurried, for scrutiny gives rise to reflection. The ineffectiveness caused by delay can ruin the accuracy of any judgment. Promptness is the mother of good fortune. An august motto: make haste slowly.

In short, it was necessary to find individuals who could be detail-oriented while not losing sight of the big picture, who were academically trained but not overly wedded to abstraction, and who were capable of combining careful reflection with prompt decisiveness. Not an easy task, confessed La Rochefoucauld, yet “when these two qualities are united in the same mind, they raise it infinitely above others.”

On the Pitfalls of Flattery and the Dangers of Group Think

All of us are dangerously susceptible to flattery. The desire for adulation and glory, griped Montaigne, was one of the most universal and contemptible traits in his fellow man. Comparing our inner lust for approbation to the songs of the Sirens seeking to lure Odysseus to his doom, Montaigne argued that “there is nothing that so poisons princes as flattery, nor anything whereby wicked men more easily obtain credit and favor with them.” Guicciardini, for his part, admitted that he never ceased to be amazed at the ease with which his contemporaries succumbed to unctuous bootlicking. “Men should look at the substance of things and not at their appearance or surface,” he admonished, before adding,

Nevertheless it is incredible what favor you will gain among men by using gentle words and bestowing compliments. The explanation, I think, is that every man thinks he is worth more than he really is. And therefore, he will be annoyed if he thinks you are not taking the account of him that he believes he deserves.

Flattery, he cautioned, was a double-edged sword. For while honeyed words could potentially be deployed for personal gain, they could just as easily be employed against us, and especially by manipulative or exploitative superiors:

Those who deal with the great must be careful not to have their heads turned by the blandiloquence and blandishments such people generally employ to choke men with favor and make them jump when they want. The harder it is to resist, the more you must try and control yourself, to keep a cold head and not to let yourself be easily swayed.

The shallowness and desire for public approval that expose us to flattery also render us more prone to intellectual conformism, preventing us from judging things on their own merit. It can be difficult, especially in the early stages of one’s career, to go against the tide, or to openly disagree with renowned figures in the field. It might also appear simpler, in some instances, to disparage an unfashionable book without having fully read it, or to refrain from voicing an opinion on a complex foreign policy issue until some form of a fuzzy group consensus has been reached. Such craven behavior, La Bruyère complained, was rife in the gilded corridors of Versailles, and had led to a steady dilution of the quality of public debate in the France of Louis XIV:

Many people perceive the merit of a manuscript which is read to them, but will not declare themselves in its favor until they see what success it has in the world when printed, or what intelligent men will say about it. They do not like to risk their opinion, and they want to be carried away by the crowd, and dragged along by the multitude. Then they say that they were amongst the first who approved of that work, and that the general public shares their opinion.

Reason alone, “wherever she appears and from whatever side she comes”, should govern our opinions, concurred his contemporary La Rochefoucauld — and in extenso the advice any decent counselor should provide to their government.



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: A faithful photographic reproduction of the The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.