The curious half-life of an ethically inadequate object


In 1998, during the presidency of Bill Clinton, the literature professor, Stephen Greenblatt, attended a function at the White House.  Clinton gave a speech in which he mentioned studying Macbeth at school.

Afterwards, Greenblatt lined up to shake Clinton’s hand, and because it was the period in which rumours about Monica Lewinsky were starting, he decided to have some fun. As he stuck out his hand, he asked Clinton the following question:

“Mr President, don’t you think that Macbeth is a great play about an immensely ambitious man who feels compelled to do things he knows are politically and morally disastrous?”

What happened next floored Greenblatt:

Clinton looked at me for a moment, still holding my hand, and said, “I think Macbeth is a great play about someone whose immense ambition has an ethically inadequate object.”

Greenblatt was astonished “by the aptness, as well as the quickness, of this comment” and after asking Clinton if he remembered any of the lines from the play, listened in frank awe as the President recited one of Macbeth’s great soliloquies “with the rest of the guests still patiently waiting to shake his hand.”

Greenblatt left the White House that night, “with the thought that Bill Clinton had missed his true vocation, which was, of course, to be an English professor.”


This has been my most treasured anecdote ever since I read it in Greenblatt’s review of “Shakespeare and the Uses of Power,” published in The New York Review of Books in April 2007.  It’s the opening passage of the review and constitutes only a tenth of its whole, and yet it is the high point.  Nothing that follows even comes close to Greenblatt’s astonishment, and the thrill I got as a reader at this stupendous phrase issuing forth from the mouth of a President.  For the phrase is stupendous.

So stupendous that, as I discovered this week when googling it, Greenblatt has been haunted by the incident, and has been trying to tame it ever since.  To date, it’s resisted all his efforts.

In 2005, for example, Greenblatt described the same incident in an article for The Age, my local newspaper.  And this time the incident has a coda.  He describes how some years later when watching television, he heard Clinton use the phrase again, slightly modified.  It came when Clinton was praising the late King Hussein of Jordan as a man “whose immense ambition had an ethically adequate object.”

This time, Greenblatt is disillusioned to discover the “marvellous phrase … was no more than multi-purpose rhetoric.”  And incorrect to boot.  For “no one with immense ambition has an ethically adequate object.”  Greenblatt concludes, “Clinton had chosen the right vocation after all!”

What’s interesting is that this re-telling of the incident, including the coda, comes two years before the review in The New York Book Review of 2007.  By the time of the later review, the coda has been dropped, along with the disillusionment, and Greenblatt’s bedazzlement has been restored.


Later still, in 2007, Greenblatt again re-tells the incident, this time in an article for Harvard Magazine entitled, fittingly, “Writing as Performance.”  This time it’s the later version again, the non-ambiguous version.  Or rather, the version with just the right amount of ambiguity.

The article is a strange one.  It reads like a general defence of Greenblatt’s practice of using personal anecdotes to discuss literary or philosophical questions.  By the time he inserts the Clinton incident the point has already been made, so including it seems gratuitous.  The article left me wondering if someone had criticised Greenblatt for using the Clinton incident in the earlier review and that now he’s added puzzlement over his compulsion to re-tell the story to his puzzlement over the original incident.


What do I deduce from all this?  I deduce the original incident with Clinton has haunted Greenblatt for two reasons.

  1. He was bested by Clinton, and on Greenblatt’s turf: literature.  The besting was not, however, an entirely agonistic one, because it also served to validate Greenblatt’s own life choices in becoming “an English professor.”
  2. When Clinton uttered the “marvellous” phrase it must have seemed to Greenblatt as if Shakespeare himself had suddenly materialised before him, a Shakespeare transmogrified into a red-faced, white-haired American with a weakness for women.

As for my own fascination with the magic phrase, I deduce I’m a language voluptuary and I’d vote for anyone who was capable of having such a thought and forming such a phrase.


To read Greenblatt’s review, “Shakespeare and the Uses of Power” in The New York Review of Books, April 2007, click here:


Postscript: This post was selected in competition for publication in the first Australian anthology of blog writing, Miscellaneous Voices: Australian Blog Writing, Edited by Karen Andrews, Miscellaneous Press, 2010



19 thoughts on “The curious half-life of an ethically inadequate object

  1. Bill Clinton, by any account, is obviously a man of very high intelligence (he allegedly did the NYT crossword puzzle during meetings in the White House, thus showing he was the ultimate multi-tasker) and would have excelled in any vocation he turned to.

    As to Clinton’s purported phrase about ambition and the ethically inadequate object, he may simply have heard somewhere it before, and it lodged in his mind, ready for him to trot out at an appropriate moment (haven’t we all done this sort of thing at one time or another?).


    • As you say, he would have excelled in any vocation. Yet for me, this doesn’t minimise the fact of his brilliance in this individual incident. It thrills me, as I reckon it thrilled Greenblatt, to be in the presence of someone of very high intelligence. It’s dangerous and rare, and I’ll take it wherever I can find it.


  2. It’s a great and telling anecdote, which is why Greenblatt kept reusing it, but by doing so, he made it progressively weaker.

    He should have concentrated on what made the anecdote so telling and then written one opus on it and leave it.


    • He did end up concentrating on what made the anecdote so telling (eg, by dropping the coda), but couldn’t seem to leave the slimmed down version alone. Funnily enough, the fact that he edited the incident and repeated it many times doesn’t make it any weaker to me. It’s like it has a truth, a power, which transcends the facts. I’m interested in your word “telling.” I’ve never lived in the US so I don’t fully understand what Clinton means to the country. In what way do you think it’s “telling”?


  3. I’m not sure that I know what makes it telling. Greenblatt has captured some of it.

    His wit, his verbal dexterity, but also his NEED to have these comebacks, to always have the last word, to always be the wittiest one in the room, his views on public and private morality, …..

    Part of any good aphorism is what it leaves to the imagination.


    • Ah, yes, having to watch someone always having the last word can get pretty tedious. At least we’ll never have that problem here in Australia. Here, it’s just not acceptable to display high intelligence or quote Shakespeare or any other signs of intellectualism; certainly not in public, and usually too in private. Instead, we give our approval to signs of lack of intelligence or learning. The only recent example of a deviation from the script is our current Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, who famously wrote a learned essay for a current affairs journal about his hero, the German theologist, Dietrich Bonnhoeffer. The fact the Prime Minister would write such a thing, and have such a figure as a hero, was debated endlessly in Australia. The only reason he got away with it I think is that he was only recently elected, and that his hero is so comparatively obscure, the incident was more like a caricature of intellectualism than some easy, confident display of the real thing.


      • I understand that Mr Rudd is also conversant in Mandarin. This would make him unusual for a “white” person, not only in Australia but anywhere.

        “……Here, it’s just not acceptable to display high intelligence or quote Shakespeare or any other signs of intellectualism; certainly not in public, and usually too in private. Instead, we give our approval to signs of lack of intelligence or learning……”

        Ditto for America, and for Canada (where I live), and I think most places else where the Anglo-Saxon is king.

        This mindless philistinism may simply be a “white” Anglo-Saxon thing.


      • Hello Mr Pip. Would you say “this mindless philistinism” applies to the UK too? I would say no, but I only lived there for a few years. And for some reason I have the impression you’d know because you’re originally English. Where did I get this idea from? Don’t tell me I just made it up because I think of you as Mr P … If it doesn’t apply to the UK, maybe it’s a “new world” thing???


      • When I talked about the mindless philistinism of the Anglo-Saxon, I was thinking more of the sunbaked colonial expat kind, who settled and ruled the old Empire.

        I, myself, come from the belly of this beast, so I know him well. Thus I still lash out at him (at myself really) at opportune moments.

        To be fair, the mindless philistine (hedonistic) thing would apply to any ex-colonial society (including America) made up of Anglo-Saxons, French, or those of any other European provenance (Albert Camus’ observations of his fellow pieds-noirs of Algeria are instructive).

        Needless to say, it comes out of being cut-off geographically from one’s cultural roots.


      • Mr P, I’m a bit confused. I thought you were “lashing out” at the mindless philistines. Are you saying it’s actually the colonising “beast” that makes you a feel a bit discombobulated? Actually the whole thing is rather horrid, really. Do tell, what’s your favourite Camus? Wouldn’t you just love to live in Oran, plague and philistines n’ all?


      • “……I’m a bit confused…..”

        I’m often told this when I try to be too clever by half, which I now see I obviously had been when I used the metaphor of the belly of the beast. The “beast”, I should explain, is the sunbaked philistine colonial society (now mercifully gone with the wind) of which I, myself, was a product.

        Hence my attraction to Camus, who was a product of a similar mileau, whose essence he captures beautifully in this passage from “Summer in Algiers”:

        Men find here throughout all their youth a way of living commensurate with their beauty. After that, decay and oblivion. They’ve staked all on the body and they know that they must lose. In Algiers, for those who are young and alive, everything is their haven and an occasion for excelling – the bay, the sun, the red and white checkerboard of terraces going down to the sea, the flowers and stadiums, the fresh brown bodies……..But for those whose youth is past no place exists, no sanctuary to absorb their memory.


      • I’ve got it now. Beautiful passage from Camus. Opening line is wonderful. Also very characteristic with the grief over a lost Eden and the morbid fear of growing older that he discusses in The First Man. Makes me wonder a bit about the car crash that killed him. He managed to avoid, by drastic means, that which he feared.


      • Sarah Palin would do well in Australia, by the sounds of it.

        I’m not sure what I like less: this Anglo-Saxon philistinism or “Continental” (French) pseudo-intellectual pretension.

        There must be a culture somewhere where you can have good, soulful conversations with people who read books and not feel ridiculous.


      • Been there, done that. Here, she went by the name of Pauline Hanson and her constituency was not hockey moms but racists. She was a former fish and chip shop proprietor who won about 10% of the vote. Once asked if was xenophobic, she famously replied, rabbit in headlights, “please explain,” which became a popular song and club act. In latter years, she’s been jailed for some electoral roll mix-up, been impersonated in some “raunchy” photos and finished second in “Dancing with the Stars.”


  4. […] The curious half-life of an ethically inadequate object is a piece of writing that any ‘reader’ would love to have written. The intelligence of the writer is what one finds really enjoyable and the subject matter, perception, Macbeth and Bill Clinton, is of interest to a very wide audience. I now have an RSS feed from the Solid Gold Creativity blog and would recommend it to all. […]


  5. I sometimes think the anti-intellectualism of Australia’s leaders can be a bit overstated.

    The former NSW premier, Bob Carr is certainly an intellectual – he regularly quoted Marcus Aurelius to a bemused press corps – ultimately he turned out to be a very popular politician for over 10 years but in hindsight proved to be a very poor leader.

    No person with any attachment to Sydney or NSW would now regard his reign in Government as productive – maybe he spent too much time reading biographies of Abraham Lincoln, his hero, to deal with the mundanities of public transport or hospitals, etc??


    • I have a different view. I think it’s impossible to overstate the anti-intellectualism of Australia’s leaders. And I reckon this is because the electorate sees effectiveness and intellect as inimical. Rudd succeeds, and Carr succeeded, in spite of what are, after all, very modest displays of intellectualism. They don’t succeed because of them. And this is what I’d like to see.


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