In 1919, the German thinker, Max Weber – seen by many as one of the greatest thinkers of the modern world and as the spokesperson for “modernity” – delivered a lecture in Munich, entitled ‘Politics as a Vocation’. It is an erudite and wide-ranging text (and I strongly recommend it – and its sister text, ‘Science as a Vocation’ – to anyone who is interested in ideas), and in the final part of the lecture, Weber sets out his views on the kind of qualities that a politician in the modern world ought to display.
This text came to my mind when I was thinking about Federer, and what it is about him which is so captivating and alluring. To answer this question, I began by considering theories of aesthetics that I’ve read – as the aesthetic is the sphere under which Fed’s talents are so often placed – and yet, surprisingly, it was Weber’s text on politics which seemed to me the most appropriate guide for understanding Federer. Of course, this is not to exclude or downplay the aesthetic dimension. Far from it. Fed is, arguably, the most naturally gifted tennis player of all time, and the way he glides around the court, which is often depicted as a canvas for his Wilson paint brush, often produces a similar response in his audience as when great visual art is consumed. But it seems that there is more to Federer than his graceful movement and beautiful shot-making. In this deliberately short piece, I will explain.
The Ideal Political Leader and The GOAT: Three Qualities
The three qualities which, in Weber’s view, the political leader ought to display are, I believe, qualities which have been so important in making Federer the champion that he is. Weber sets out his stall:
One can say that three pre-eminent qualities are decisive for the politician: passion, a feeling of responsibility, and a sense of proportion…
Weber’s ideal politician is, firstly, passionate. He expands:
This means passion in the sense…of passionate devotion to a 'cause,' to the god or demon who is its overlord…
Tennis can be a very frustrating sport. There is no way around the hard work. Embrace it. You have to put in the hours because there is always something you can improve. [Y]ou have to put in a lot of sacrifice and effort for sometimes little reward but you have to know that, if you put in the right effort, the reward will come.
Thus, on this Weberian reading, passionate devotion to a cause is an important quality for the political leader and the tennis champion. However, Weber sets out a second criterion which he closely links to a third:
To be sure, mere passion, however genuinely felt, is not enough. It does not make a politician, unless passion as devotion to a 'cause' also makes responsibility to this cause the guiding star of action. And for this, a sense of proportion is needed. This is the decisive psychological quality of the politician: his ability to let realities work upon him with inner concentration and calmness…
The ideal Weberian politician cannot be intoxicated or blinded by the cause that he pursues. He cannot be a dogmatist. The reason for this is that he needs to display responsibility towards the consequences of his attempt to realize that cause in the political sphere. He needs to know whether the consequences of his actions might do more harm than good and, if they do, he needs to have the capacity to revise his goals. As Weber writes, he needs to be able ‘to let realities work upon him with inner concentration and calmness’.
Now, Weber recognizes that attaining this sense of proportion is not easy. As he writes, ‘the problem is simply how can warm passion and a cool sense of proportion be forged together in one and the same soul?’. Furthermore, we might say that, at this point, there is a slight disanalogy between politics and tennis in that a responsibility for consequences might cause a political leader to refrain from pursuing his ultimate ideals, but there’s no obvious reason why the tennis champion ought to step back from his commitment to the attainment of perfect tennis. However, this quibble can be put to one side for it is, in Weber’s words above, ‘the decisive psychological quality’ that is our main concern: namely, the ability to see the world calmly and clearly, with a certain amount of inner distance from it.
Fed’s “zen” quality is possibly the quality I admire most about him. However, I think the term is misleading in so far as it leads us to think that this is some sort of meditative experience. Fed’s calmness is not borne of disembodiment as meditation might be. It is borne, rather, of his herculean psychological ability to forge together ‘warm passion and a cool sense of proportion…in one and the same soul’. In fact, we can reinstate the analogy with Weber’s ideal politician in so far as Fed’s cool, measured approach, and his ability to see matches as they really are enables him to switch game plans if required (and on the point about his ability to view his matches coolly and clearly, who hasn’t been impressed during post-match interviews by his acute analysis of the play and his remarkably accurate, detailed knowledge on a point by point level?). Fed rarely gets flustered on court. There may be the odd outburst but, on the whole, his levels of self-control and proportionate conduct set him apart from the likes of Djokovic and Murray.
Fed’s coolness under pressure – which the majority of his fans, myself included, are unable to imitate – was exhibited in the Cilic match during this year’s Wimbledon, as he fought off multiple match points and came back to win from two sets down. The glory achieved at the end of the match was well deserved. And this reference to glory leads us to a final point made by Weber, which, unlike the former points, is negative and cautionary. Weber writes:
Therefore, daily and hourly, the politician inwardly has to overcome a quite trivial and all-too-human enemy: a quite vulgar vanity, the deadly enemy of all matter-of-fact devotion to a cause, and of all distance, in this case, of distance towards one's self. Vanity is a very widespread quality and perhaps nobody is entirely free from it…
Vanity in politics, whereby the political leader primarily pursues goals not for their intrinsic merit and suitability in a particular society but because he is motivated to appear powerful or virtuous (or whatever) is potentially far more dangerous than it is in tennis. However, its undesirability in tennis is not only obvious to fans, but can prevent the player from exhibiting the qualities which, arguably, are required of a champion and certainly a great champion. For the vain individual’s preoccupation with his effects on the world, which places him in thrall to the opinions of his audience, prevents him from securing sufficient ‘distance towards’ himself, and robs his identity of inner strength and substance. Weber elaborates:
From the sudden inner collapse of typical representatives of this mentality, we can see what inner weakness and impotence hides behind this boastful but entirely empty gesture.
A criticism which has often been made about Federer is that he is vain and arrogant. Vanity and arrogance are slightly different but both reflect an exaggerated preoccupation with oneself. Fed’s hair flicks, his friendship with Anna Wintour, his Wimbledon 2007 outfit, his humblebrags: all of these things might support accusations of vanity and arrogance. Indeed, the idea that ‘nobody is entirely free’ from these vices further supports the charge. But Federer’s management of his image is underpinned by a far more significant anchorage of his identity in a commitment to objective criteria; namely, the endless striving to shape his self into a vehicle of tennis perfection, whereby such a task is based not on the exultation of his own, personal self but on its cultivation and control. Indeed, it is that project of self-shaping (in Weber’s words, that ‘firm taming of the soul’) which has made his tennis identity so steely and robust. Humblebrags do not illustrate bragging, but illustrate rather the aforementioned ability to view his own play with measure and detachment, in a matter-of-fact kind of way.
I wrote in the introduction above that there is ‘more to Federer than his graceful movement and beautiful shot-making’. I hope that this piece, which outlines the psychological qualities advanced by Weber for political leadership, and which arguably are embodied by Fed, adds insights into what might lie behind Fed’s talent and aestheticism. Indeed, if Federer had not been able to discipline his rumbustious youthful self – a process which occurred in the depths of the mind of a sporting genius, and which created an iron identity capable of consistent sporting success, week after week, and year after year – we might never have been gifted with the opportunity to watch a form of tennis played so consistently by a maestro whose craft aspires to and verges on – but which can never fully realize – mathematical precision and beauty.