Joseph Cropsey, RIP

Joseph Cropsey

The conservative intellectual world has lost one of its important figures with the death  Sunday of Joseph Cropsey of the University of Chicago at the age of 92.  Cropsey was one of the first generation of students of Leo Strauss, and the co-editor of the invaluable “Strauss-Cropsey reader” (as it is known to generations of students), History of Political Philosophy.  It’s an indispensible reference work that belongs on the shelf of anyone with a serious interest in philosophy (though I recommend the first or second edition over the third edition for a variety of reasons).

Cropsey was not as prolific as many of Strauss’s students, but his corpus of published work is deeply impressive, if equally challenging as his teacher.  He wrote with deep insight about both Marx and Adam Smith—an appropriate pairing—but also on Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau and the rest of the pantheon.  More so than other Straussians, he was interested in the intersection of political philosophy and economics.

His best collection is a set of essays entitled Political Philosophy and the Issues of Politics, long out of print but readily available on the used book markets.  The introductory essay of the collection, “The United States as a Regime and the Sources of the American Way of Life,” conveys both the depth of Cropsey’s work as well as its relevance, as these excerpts may suggest:

The United States is an arena in which modernity is working itself out. . .  It follows that the United States is the microcosm of modernity, repeating in its regime, on the level of popular consciousness, the major noetic events of the modern world. . .  Perhaps the highest task of political philosophy is to understand, as the highest task of statesmanship is to govern, the relation of political life to thought.  The genius of the American regime assigns this highest task to the people themselves, and in so doing brings the nation closer to the outer limit of self-government rightly understood.  This means the character of the people is called on to stand in the place of wisdom.

Also not to be missed in this collection is the essay entitled “The Moral Basis of International Action,” which reads just as fresh and serious and relevant in the age of terrorism as it did during the Cold War when it was written.  The essay goes way beyond the standard New York Times editorial page hand-wringing about the dilemmas of power or violence and morality in the real world decisions of statesmen, but too rich and difficult to summarize or characterize in a blog post.  A few sentences from the conclusion are worth sharing:

Whatever reminds us of civilization reminds us at the same time of our duty to civilization, which means in practice to civilized men.  What begins as a reflection on duty to man ends, under the influence of a glimpse at human superiority, as a reflection on duty to civilized man and to civilized nations.  The way to discharge our duty to civilization is to sustain it where it exists before trying to inspire it where it never has been.  Upon this point, remote from doctrinarism, the morality of calculation and the morality of honor come within sight of one another.  The resulting gain in strategic competence brings them within earshot of one another.  We must not despair if they never join hands.


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