Walter Berns and Harry V. Jaffa, RIP

Walter Berns

Walter Berns

By an extraordinary coincidence that summons up the idea of Providence, Walter Berns and Harry Jaffa both passed away yesterday. These two intellectual giants, graduate school classmates and students of Leo Strauss, carried on a long-running and sometimes bitter feud (“the feud that saved conservatism,” as I shall argue more fully in a couple days). This found me caught in the middle, as a student of Jaffa and a colleague of Berns at AEI.

I’ll have lots more to say about both men in the coming days here and elsewhere, but for now, let’s start with Jaffa’s description of the “new political science” that he learned from Leo Strauss, as he explained it in the preface to the 1982 (third) edition of Crisis of the House Divided:

Such a political science would be more modest in its goals than the political science it offers to replace. It would vindicate moderation—and the moral virtues generally—as necessary to a decent political life. It would show how men might be happier by demanding less of political life and more of themselves. It would do this, in part, by saving morality from the reputation it had acquired from Kant as being indifferent to happiness. And it corrected Kant’s teacher, Rousseau, by proving that the union of justice and utility could not be achieved by any wholly modern form of natural right. It could only be achieved by some form of Socratic natural right, that form of natural right which pointed to the sovereign and philosophic wisdom among all possible human ends. The reunion of justice and utility pointed, however, towards practical wisdom—phronesis or prudentia—as the supplement and complement of decency in the work of statesmen and citizens. It pointed towards rhetoric as the principal instrument by which political men might implement political wisdom. Henceforward, political science, properly so called, would have at its heart the study of the speeches and deeds of statesmen.

Despite their theoretical disagreements, Walter Berns agreed with the conclusion of this passage. In our last ever conversation on the phone a couple years ago, Walter said to me in his gruff, baritone voice: “The proper method for the study of politics is biography!

Stay tuned for more. . .

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