The 1,000-Year Man

December 16, 1990|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON — Washington.--WITH 991 YEARS down and just nine to go, let's limber up our mental muscles and think millennially.

Time magazine soon will announce its ''person of the year,'' surely either Bart Simpson or Saddam Hussein: The tone of life this year was set by underachieving at home and overreaching abroad. And Time reports receiving nominees for person of the century, and of the millennium. Let's choose.

Surely, this century belongs to Einstein or Churchill. Einstein altered how we think about the most basic things -- space, time, matter, energy -- and hence how we think about, and even how we see, everything. Nothing -- not politics, not art, not literature -- has been unaltered. Churchill understood the two great, and related, social inventions of this century, total war and totalitarianism. Because of his understanding, and courage, free nations survived both.

Now, who is the most important person of the millennium? It is salutary and oddly bracing to realize how thoroughly time enforces a leveling perspective. How few are the persons whose deeds will be spoken of, or whose words will be read, even a century or two hence. There are remarkably few really tall silhouettes against the time horizon of ten centuries.

The two great, and related, developments of this millennium are the nation-state, and political freedom, which involves limiting the state. Therefore, the five finalists for Person of the Millennium are: Machiavelli, Luther, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln.

Machiavelli disturbed the Western mind as an early, vivid example of modern masterless man, obedient to no god and only to the rules he wrote. But, as has been said, Machiavelli is no more ''the father of power politics'' than William Harvey was ''the father of the circulation of the blood.''

With astonishing matter-of-factness, he said vice is needed in politics if virtue is to stand a chance. And the purpose of politics is not to make men virtuous, but to make the state (he more than anyone else gave that word currency) safe. In him was the embryo of modern politics, the individualism of self-interested strivers: Every man a prince.

Four years after ''The Prince'' was written, Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door. The Reformation was both cause and effect of nascent nationalism. And the Reformation's central idea was the grain of sand around which formed, in time, a political pearl. The central idea was the primacy of private judgment -- conscience.

''Here I stand,'' said Luther. ''I cannot do otherwise.'' Luther had little interest in political freedom, but the fuse he lit led to political dynamite: the importance of consent. There is a direct road from the church in Wittenberg to Independence Hall in Philadelphia and Jefferson's formulation: Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Machiavelli and Luther were merely parts of the prologue of modernity. Each was a hammer that helped shatter suffocating systems of thought and governance. But those systems were doomed; there would have been other, sufficient hammers.

However, America is the most important thing that ever happened, both because of the vision of good it has presented and the evils it has prevented. America need not have happened, or lasted.

The arguments for Washington or Lincoln as Person of the Millennium are that each was indispensable. Subtract Jefferson from America and American independence would nevertheless have been achieved, if less ringingly. But subtract Washington the soldier, and the Revolution might have been extinguished. Subtract Washington the politician, and the transition to the Constitution might not have happened: Disintegration might have occurred. Washington not only wielded power well, he provided the imperishable example of available power not wielded, a refusal to achieve unwholesome eminence.

Lincoln, by winning, as only he could have done, the Civil War, prevented the proliferation of petty, unlovely little nations in what is now the United States. He prevented the victory of, among other bad things, the idea of secession. That idea would have caused the disintegration of even the Confederacy, and perhaps what remained of the Union, too.

Lincoln was the last Founder, completing the founding by forcing the issue: America could be defined by its dedication to a proposition. Whose? Jefferson's. Speaking in Independence Hall en route to Washington in 1861, Lincoln said: ''I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.''

The argument for Jefferson is that history is the history of the human mind, of ideas. Jefferson was, pre-eminently, the mind of the Revolution that succeeded. It resulted in the birth of the first modern nation, the nation that in the 20th century saved the world from tyranny.

Jefferson expressed the American idea: political and social pluralism; government of limited, delegated and enumerated powers; the fecundity of freedom. He expressed it not only in stirring cadences, but also in the way he lived, as statesman, scientist, architect, educator.

Jeffersonianism is what free men believe. Jefferson is what a free person looks like -- confident, serene, rational, disciplined, temperate, tolerant, curious. In fine, Jefferson is the Person of the Millennium.

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