The heroic struggle of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky against the tyrant Putin’s invasion of Ukraine represents nothing less than the return of noble manliness in our era. Improbably, he rose from portraying a Ukrainian president on a hit comedy series to becoming president in real life. His dressed-down khaki jacket and T-shirt shows solidarity with ordinary Ukrainians and has an Israeli feel. Don’t do what I ask because I’m president, he says. Do it because you’re Ukrainian. Tough, flexible, and compassionate, he is open to negotiation even as he is determined to defend Ukraine to the utmost. As Russian shells rain down on Kyiv, he works openly in his presidential office, fearlessly showing everyone where he is, in marked contrast to the bloated Putin, barricaded behind his 30-foot desk surrounded by food tasters, like some Grand Vizier or Greek despot.
The idea of manly virtue has been discounted for many years now in our institutions of higher learning, frequently identified with “toxic masculinity” and other supposed threats to proper order. The caricature of manliness that our institutions now offer us is identified exclusively with barbarism and misogyny. In the film Fight Club, Tyler Durden’s choice is between being an Ikea furniture-buying denizen of 12-step programs and the Blonde Beast, as played by Brad Pitt. Faced with the choice between being a wimp and a barbarian, young men may default toward the latter. This caricature overlooks the fact that in the Western tradition, manliness was never identified with macho barbarism, but with its opposite: a balance of reason and passion, displaying courtesy, moderation, decency toward women, compassion for the oppressed, a love of higher learning and beauty, civic spiritedness in a just cause but never fanaticism, a restraint that displayed reserves of great strength. The classical standard for true manliness was still witnessed in modern democratic politics with leaders like Lincoln and Churchill. Though neither man was free of flaws, they had an inner compass that at their best moments guided what they aspired to be and how they governed. The emergence of Zelensky reminds us that such leaders can still emerge from the Western masculine ideal.
What better way, then, to examine Zelensky’s kind of manliness than by looking at Aristotle’s hierarchy of moral virtues in the Nicomachean Ethics, one of the most famous ancient guides to the nature of a noble character. Aristotle understands the virtues as ascending from the baseline traits of bodily self-control and courage, through more refined characteristics such as moderation and liberality—which require the exercise of discriminating judgment—and reaching their peak in greatness of soul or pride.
And yet there is a virtue still higher for Aristotle than pride. It is prudence, a sagacious grasp of political affairs and how to navigate their shoals so as to steer the ship of state in the direction of justice and good government. Whereas the other virtues can be practiced by a wide variety of people, prudence is the hallmark of only the most extraordinary statesmen like Pericles. As Aristotle observes in the Politics, there will never be more than “one or a few” such leaders available to the city at any given time. Moreover, whereas the other virtues can be practiced in private life, or through intermittent forays into public life, prudence can only be cultivated by one who actually governs. Unlike the other virtues, prudence is not only a virtue of character, but an intellectual virtue as well. The prudent statesman will combine the wisdom of earned experience from an immersion in the shifting currents of political affairs with a braininess that will tell him when precedent may not provide an adequate guide.
Before we proceed, we should bear in mind that Aristotle’s hierarchy of virtues is not a set of rigid absolutes, like Kant’s categorical imperative. For Aristotle, statecraft is not a realm of scientific rigor but of contingencies and probabilities. His ethics are a catalog of character traits based on the observation of citizens in everyday life. Virtue is a middle ground of conduct between extremes and can shift in either direction before tipping over. It’s a judgment call, for example, as to precisely when courage veers into the extreme of mad daring or, out of an excess of caution in responding to danger, into the opposite extreme of cowardice.
Aristotle does not envision any single person as demonstrating all of these virtues to the same extent or in exactly the same way. Nor will everyone have the same opportunity to display virtue. For example, the virtue of liberality, a mean between prodigality and stinginess, requires financial means. A billionaire who can extend financial assistance to large numbers of people has more scope to practice this virtue than a worker with a middle-class income. But the worker can practice it to a degree through a modest donation to a charity. What matters is that each of us aims for this middle ground between the extremes, exercising virtue to the extent that we can, within the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
With that in mind, we now turn to President Zelensky, whose own practice of the Aristotelian virtues presents a typically complex mixture. Temperance and courage? He displays these every day, sharing his people’s deprivation and danger. He fits Aristotle’s understanding of moderation because he can shift pragmatically in the direction required, agreeing to negotiate with Putin while pledging defiance. He is willing to work with the other democracies but will not be deterred from fighting to preserve Ukraine’s freedom—or criticizing NATO or the United States for failing to deliver MiGs. This balancing act requires tremendous steadiness, not flying off the handle, being cowed by setbacks, lashing out at subordinates, or throwing tantrums.
What about liberality? Zelensky is not especially wealthy; his route to greatness was arguably paved by the billionaire oligarch Oleg Kolomoisky, a notably immoderate character who aired his television show and then paid for his presidential run before frightening his fellow oligarchs badly enough that they teamed up to throw him out of the country, allowing Zelensky to be his own man and to win the trust of his fellow Ukrainians. Whatever his faults, and they appear to be many, Kolomoisky also built schools and community centers. Zelensky cannot. But he has given his own money in the past to support Ukraine’s army in the civil war in the East, and by drumming up foreign aid and humanitarian relief in the current crisis, he is practicing liberality. After victory, Zelensky will doubtless display it on an even larger scale in finding the resources to rebuild Ukraine’s devastated cities.
It is abundantly clear that Zelensky possesses Aristotle’s crowning virtue of greatness of soul. According to Aristotle, only grave national peril brings out the best in such men. In ordinary times, the chores of daily governing, tax policy, and so on may bore them. This was certainly true of Lincoln and Churchill, whose political careers, had they not been summoned to wartime leadership on behalf of a just cause, might have well been forgotten. Lincoln was widely viewed as an opportunist and a waffler over slavery; Churchill was seen as disloyal for switching parties and had to live down the disaster of Gallipoli.
Zelensky displays a similar pattern. Before Putin’s invasion, his popularity was in decline. There were grumblings about his offshore holdings, and his efforts to erase government corruption were only a mixed success. But like Lincoln and Churchill, he rose to meet an occasion that demanded every ounce of his character, convictions, and intelligence.
That brings us to Aristotle’s crowning virtue of prudence, a mixture of experience, steadfastness, and intelligence. Like Lincoln and Churchill, Zelensky has displayed it abundantly since Putin’s invasion. Rarely within living memory has a democratic leader had so many bombs to juggle in midair, so many corners to dodge around, so many conflicting agendas to address simultaneously. He expresses gratitude for the assistance NATO has given Ukraine, but calmly and intransigently tells them when it is not enough. He is open to negotiation but refuses any talk of surrender. He denies Putin not only eastern Ukraine but insists on the restoration of Crimea as well. All the while he shares his people’s suffering and thereby encourages them to hold on. Next to him, the leaders of much more imposing Western powers with much longer histories as far larger economies and armies look small.
Harriet Beecher Stowe remarked after meeting Lincoln that the reason he was always willing to listen to advice was that he had an inner character like “a wire cable”—flexible on tactics, but unshakable about the final goal. When the Athenian people panicked over how badly the war with Sparta was going and turned on Pericles, he calmly told them that while they changed from day to day, he remained always the same. While Zelensky’s career in public life had not been lengthy when he was plunged into the crisis of the invasion, he has found within himself this same combination of experience, flexibility, and intellectual firmness.
Aristotle also says that the best ruler must master the art of rhetoric so as to inspire his fellow citizens to act justly, although be ready to use force if noble rhetoric fails. Not only is Zelensky a fine orator, but he has extended the reach of his message through modern communications technology, addressing legislatures around the world on Zoom. It does not hurt that (like Ronald Reagan) he comes from a background as an entertainer, and so he is adept at shaping an audience. Depending on what the occasion calls for, he can be eloquent, drawing on Churchill’s Never Surrender speech before the U.K. Parliament, or he can be blunt with an undertone of mordant humor, responding to NATO shilly-shallying about where fighter jets should be sent from: “This isn’t pingpong.” He reached under the wire of Putin’s dictatorship to speak movingly to the Russian people, assuring them that Ukraine’s battle was not with them, magnanimous even to the foe. A master of rhetoric, he is also aware of the limits of rhetorical persuasion. Sometimes brute force is necessary against both the enemy and also, regrettably, some of his own people, as when he declared martial law across Ukraine.
We cannot know what the outcome of Zelensky’s stirring defense of his country against Putin’s aggression will be, or how long he will be able to hold on in Kyiv. What is clear is that Zelensky is the living embodiment at this moment of the ancient virtues prescribed by Aristotle. Manly virtue still exists, and Zelensky has reminded us of its true meaning.
Waller R. Newell is Professor of Political Science and Philosophy and co-founder of the College of the Humanities at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. He is the author of Tyrants: Power, Injustice and Terror (2019) and Tyranny and Revolution: Rousseau to Heidegger, which will be published in spring 2022.