David Brooks writes,
[George] Marshall lived in the world of airplanes and the nuclear bomb, but in many ways he was formed by the moral traditions of classical Greece and Rome. His moral make-up owed something to Homer, to the classical emphasis on courage and honor. It owed something to the Stoics, with their emphasis on moral discipline. But particularly later in life it also owed something to the ancient Athenian Pericles, who embodied the style of leadership that we call magnanimity, or great-souled.
The magnanimous leader is called upon by his very nature to perform some great benefit to his people. He holds himself to a higher standard and makes himself into a public institution. Magnanimity can only really be expressed in public or political life.
But George Marshall didn't start out that way, he achieve magnanimity over a lifetime of self-mastery, as Brooks narrates it. He was not particularly brilliant as a child but exerted great effort to achieve his success. He writes, "His rise in the ranks of life would not come from his natural talent. It would come from grinding, the dogged plod, and self-discipline."
Marshall's character was formed in the military, first at the Virginia Military Institute and then in the U. S. Army. Brooks writes that VMI was not a great academic institution but that it existed in a "moral culture that brought together several ancient traditions: a chivalric devotion to service and courtesy, a stoic commitment to emotional self-control, and a classical devotion to honor."
In the Army, Marshall became an Organization Man, sublimating his own ego and ambition to the institution. His career was not stellar, often being passed over for promotions. Some of that may have come from his aloofness, an inability to form close friendships being the downside of his devotion to duty.
But he was admired for his administrative abilities and finally was in the right place at the right time and became Army Chief of Staff who then successfully led the Army through the Second World War, though he never had a battlefield command. When he became Chief of Staff he purged the officer ranks of incompetent men and radically reformed the institution, as only an institutional man could have, which prepared the Army for the coming war.
After his retirement he was routinely called upon to serve in new capacities, including two posts in the Cabinet at Secretary of State and then Defense. He was, of course, the architect of the Marshall Plan. Brooks writes that all his post-Army service was out of his sense of duty and obligation to the nation, when what he really desired was to finally have a private life.
The previous post in this series, one on Dorothy Day, is here.