The Pursuit of Righteousness and the Pursuit of Political Success (Essay)

This paper ist the second of two essays which had to written during my Erasmus term at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in a seminar about the „Psychology of Politics“ held by Emeritus Professor H.B. Berrington.  The paper puts forward a number of key assumptions. The first assumption of this paper is, that happiness, confidence, self esteem, psychological stability, goal attainment, and the belief in principles and values of an individual are based on his relation to a peer group, in which he is socialised. The individual is thereby part of a process of interaction, which is regulated by the peer group’s moral standards. These moral standards define roles, rules and expectations, and work as a guideline to distinguish between doing right or wrong. The notion of a society which consists of different groups leads us to the second assumption that there are different moralities related to different groups. Therefore, the third and most important assumption of this paper is that the idea of a higher righteousness is always related to the closer social environment, represented by the individual’s peer group, in which the individual is socialised. These assumptions lead to my thesis that there are two different qualities of relation between an individual’s pursuit of righteousness and his pursuit of success. These two qualities depend whether the individual refers in his behaviour to a peer group with it’s own and independent ideas and moral values, or if it lacks such a separated peer group and has to measure the righteousness of his being by the measure rod of conventional morality of society. I hypothesise that the difference of this quality are one possibility to explains the difference between powerful and weak political leaders.

First, I’m going to explain the basic assumption about the individual and his psychological reasoned relation to his peer group. This step will be a review of several assumptions of sociological and philosophical authors who are concerned with this issue as part of their theories include as well as a psychological explanation. This first step will explain the pursuit for righteousness and will offer the possibility to distinguish between different definitions of righteousness.

Secondly, I will focus on the pursuit of success. The analysis of the nature of righteousness leads to a distinction between right and wrong success. Hereby, it will become clear that the political success implies an assumption of the condition of personal happiness in the long run. It will be obvious, that it is a question of interpretation what a political success exactly is, and that this interpretation is related to a personal calculation which depends on the values socialised by the political actor’s peer group.

In the conclusion, I’m going to rate the support of the political through his peer group. Thereby, I will try to show that the support of a group makes a difference to the mental strength of the political leader and leaves us with the idea that the strength or weakness of leadership depends upon it.

Righteousness is related to the Peer Group

The personality of a leader distinguishes itself by the “explorative energy which brings [him] into practical knowledge and into contact with opportunity”. (Cooley 1918, p.92) But as it is shown by the psycho-analytical approach of Freud and Co including the notion of the Super-Ego as an internalisation of “precepts and moral attitudes of others” (Flugel 1973, p.35), the believes and attitudes of the individual are not only brought up by itself, and also his righteousness cannot be assured by itself (see Flugel 1973, p.53) These traits of the personality are related to the peer group, the person belongs to. Surprisingly, as we can read in the essay of Germino, it is already Machiavelli who emphasises the “love of fellow men, of rulers, and of institutions – one’s country, religion, customs”. Unfortunately, Machiavelli “offers no sustained analysis of love’s sources, varieties, and objects”, but the hint itself is almost enough to consider the group the individual belongs to as a very important determinating factor of the individuals behaviour through the “social conditioning” (Germino 1972, p.82). As Cooley mentions, “the bad boy seldom stands alone in his delinquency, but is usually associated with a group whose degenerate standards more or less uphold him (Cooley 1918, p.106). This is not only true for the “bad boy”, but especially for the political man in general. The personalities in politics “manifest themselves most clearly in the choice […] of personnel”. Therefore, Lasswell suggests to “examine the personnel with which men surround themselves. […] Leaders often operate in situations where the personnel is imposed upon them.” (Lasswell 1948, p.101). This support of a leader through his peer group was already known to Machiavelli. As Wood states, Machiavelli argued that “men are essentially the same because they are motivated by similar, insatiable passions” and that “they resemble each other because they are born, and live, and die in comparable manner.” (Wood 1972, p.45) If we rephrase this finding in a more modern term, we could speak about a common socialisation, which leads to a common idea of common values and morality and which is based on a common sense of reality experienced together. But not only the love of and belonging drives the man, but also fear, alike the fear to loose his group. This fear can be reasoned in a psychological way: „Being born ‚without protection‘ [the individual] is in need of a shell of security. Without such a protective shell his constructive and co-operative impulses cannot take a root and flourish.“ (Germino 1972,p.63) Love or “affection”, in this respect, can be seen as the boundary between the single individual and the protective group. The pursuit for righteousness of the individual has to be understood in this relationship as an attitude to behave and to act as far as it seems acceptable or fair from the point of view of common moral standards and values. A failure of the individual would, in this respect, “disintegrate himself, setting up a rebellion in his own camp” and would weaken his position in society, as Cooley points out. (see Cooley 1918, p.100) Psychological, “in both the adult and infantile situations”, “separation” would mean the “loss of satisfaction, and security and thus would rise anxiety” of the individual (Flugel 1973, p.56).

These findings contradict our daily life experiences with immoral behaving politicians or businessmen. This is even more surprising, when we consider the findings stated above. Cooley gives us a clue when he suggests that the political leader should not “forget his own aims, but cultivate a belief that others are disposed to do them injustice.” (Cooley 1918, p.96) The political leader and his opponent obviously don’t share the same interpretation of being righteous. This can be explained by the simple fact that there are different group with different notions of morality existing. Referring to Machiavelli, politics are always a “struggle between rival groups within communities” (Germino 1972, p.67). The mind of the political leader is therefore “divided, he is conscious of the […] standards” of his own group “and also of those of the larger group” (Cooley 1918, p.106), for instance society as a whole. The fact of those conflicts between rival groups leads us to the necessary assumption that the successful policy must be based on a kind of higher righteousness, which, in the end, achieves a “measure of stability and predictability in the social milieu […] by instituting procedures” of conflicts between rival groups. (Ibid.)

True and False Success

The notion that righteousness is related to the peer group through the inner needs of the individual, like e.g. the need for affection or protection, consequently has to lead to the notion that there is also a wrong and right about the question what success means.

Cooley implies a psychological need for success when he defines success as “the fullest consciousness of personal existence and efficacy”. Success seems to be value in itself, fulfilling the need for the feeling to live. Cooley continues saying that “if a man is working zealously at a task worthy in itself and not unsuited to his capacity, he has commonly the feeling of success.” (Cooley 1918, p.89) But already at Cooley’s quite abstract definitions of success, he states that the individual has to decide between “the striving for the higher right” or “to have external rewards. […] To Gain wealthy and popularity is success for some, […] but the man of a finer strain must be true to his finer ideal.” (Cooley 1918, p.108). The distinction which is to made here could presumed as a distinction between a political long term and a personal short term success. To explain this distinction properly, it has to be agreed to the thesis of Machiavelli, that any political conflict endangers the “loss of liberty either through external conquest or internal tyranny” (Germino 1972, p.70) As Machiavelli found, “the instability of politics has its roots in man’s psychological instability”, which “oscillates between […] love and hate, fear and courage, the desire for tranquility and the urge for adventure, inertia and activism.” (Germino 1972, p.66) When “private ends take precedence over the public good” (Kontos 1972, p.84), personal success can be gained “in defiance of morality” through “uncommon ability”, such as for instance the power related to a political office which may “involve a lack of divergence of group standards.” With respect to the notions of moral philosophy, Cooley states that “it is always possible to gain an immediate advantage by disregarding the rule that limit other people” (Cooley 1918, p.102). Social disorder and confusion rise the opportunities for personal success, such as the “personal hunger for power” or “selfish ambition” (Kontos 1972, p.84; Wood 1972, p.40), through immoral behaviour. For instance, this is the case “if the economic system is disintegrated by rapid changes”. Then, “there will be a lack of clear sense of right and wrong relating to it, and a lack of mechanism for enforcing what sense there is” (Cooley 1918, p.104). This confusion affects not only the personal environment, but society as a whole. Unfortunately, this contradicts the human need for stability and remembers the political task to invent conflict managing procedures. “Men cannot be expected to act morally, if by doing so they continously jeopardise their own vital interests. Individual moral action will only occur where there is some expectation that others act morally, and such an expectation will exist not under the anarchic lay of the jungle, but in a relatively secure and stable society.” (Wood 1972, p.50) Therefore it is Machiavelli’s conclusion that the “goal of political leadership is to establish an environment whereby the basic and immutable tenets of human nature are fully accommodated […] through the creation of appropriate socio-political institutions.” (Kontos 1972, p.84) Such a political success means glory, or, in other words, “a bond between the great and the ordinary men” which contradicts the value of personal short term benefits. (Kontos 1972, p.86) Therefore, it is a fundamental ability of the political leader “to distinguish between glory and narrow ambition, between the common good and private advantage.” (Germino 1972, p.71)

A Concluding Speculation: Personal Confidence as a Condition of Political Success

To summarize the statements above, we can say that the political leader is supported by a peer group and that there are different boundaries between him and the group basing on a common identity and a promise of mutual protection. The diversity of different groups implies competing interests, which define the need for an institutionalisation of procedures of conflict management as the higher aim of politics. The introduction of those procedures may seem immoral for members of competing groups. Therefore, there is a need for personal strength, which implies ‘not to forget the own aim’ and to distinguish between ‘the common good and private advantage’. But it is exactly this strength, which depends upon the quality of support by the peer group.

As we can see now, the politics of the political leader are potentially immoral foremost related to the moral standards of the alien group, while it might be conform with the moral standards and political ideas of the own peer group. Political alienation is thus just a consequence of the higher righteousness the political actor refers to. “Ultimately morality depends upon […] calculation” which must root in “the sphere of personal morality, that of family and friends”, as Wood rephrases Machiavelli (Wood 1972, p.55). Therefore, the apparent contradiction of the pursuit of righteousness and the pursuit for political success does not have to be contradictory at all for the individual. The hereby implied assumption of a leader’s need to be an integrated member of a group explains furthermore the different political range of different people. Cooley makes a distinction between those, whose social traits are poor and whose ideas are genius, but don’t work, and those, whose conceptions are not brilliant, but which “have a certain native power of growth” because of certain of the social traits of their inventors. (compare Cooley 1918, p.91) Cooley hereby offers the opportunity to make a distinction between two cases. In the first case, the pursuit for righteousness and the pursuit for success may fit together thanks to a distinction between the leader’s peer group and the society. But in a second case, we have to ask what might happen if the political actor is missing the support of such a peer group. If we assume that an individual pursues righteousness for psychological reasons, we have to assume that an individual which is missing the assuring environment of a personal peer group will fail when a expedient policy essentially needs immoral decisions. Thus we could argue that the existence of a peer group is a necessity for the strength to keep the track of long term political aims. As Christie and Geis have shown in their sophisticated studies of the Machiavellian personality, the Machiavellian is able to keep consciously independent of alien expectations when he is achieving his own goals. The peculiarity of this ability of the Machiavellian becomes clear when we consider the assumption of the psychological finding that “cognitions representing private opinions are often easier to change than those representing verifiable actions.” (Christie 1970, p.256) But interestingly, even the Machiavellian is changing his opinion when the risk of being convicted of an immoral behaviour rises, as Christie and Geis found out. (see Christie 1970, p.257) But this is not to be misunderstood as a clever tactical “Machiavellian” behaviour. The fact that Machiavellian personalities “appear to have as little defensive investment in their own self-image or their own beliefs as they have in others or in interpersonal relations” (Christie 1970, p.312) seems to support our hypothesis more than anything else. Especially the unexpected weak personality of the Machiavellian has the need of the affection of his peer group. A political leader following a higher righteousness favoured only by his own lonely existence would not survive the implied sacrifices, “and though he may make headway for a while it is pretty sure to overcome him in time.” (Cooley 1918, p.101)


Christie, Richard; Geis, Florence L.(Ed.) (1970):Studies in Machiavellianism.New York, London (Academic Press).

Cooley, Charles Horton (1918): Social Process.New York (Charles Scribner’s Sons).

Flugel, J.C. (1973): Man, Morals and Society.A Psycho-Analytical Study.Frome, London (Butler and Tanner Ltd.).

Germino, Dante (1972): Machiavelli’s Thoughts on the Psyche and Society. In: Parel, Anthony (Ed.): The Political Calculus.Essays on Machiavelli’s Philosophy.Toronto, Buffalo (University of Toronto Press). p.59-82.

Kontos, Alkis (1972): Success and Knowledge in Machiavelli. In: Parel, Anthony (Ed.): The Political Calculus.Essays on Machiavelli’s Philosophy.Toronto, Buffalo (University of Toronto Press). p.83-100.

Lasswell, Harold Dwight (1948): Power and Personality.New York (W.W. Norton & Company Inc.).

Wood, Neal (1972): Machiavelli’s Humanism of Action. In: Parel, Anthony (Ed.): The Political Calculus.Essays on Machiavelli’s Philosophy.Toronto, Buffalo (University of Toronto Press). p.33-56.

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