Today is Winston Churchill’s 144th birthday, though any day is worthy of recalling what I have taken to using with students on the first day of my seminar on political leadership—Leo Strauss’s famous eulogy to Churchill in the classroom at Chicago:
The death of Churchill is a healthy reminder to students of political science of their limitations, the limitations of their craft.
The tyrant stood at the pinnacle of his power. The contrast between the indomitable and magnanimous statesman and the insane tyrant — this spectacle in its clear simplicity was one of the greatest lessons which men can learn, at any time.
No less enlightening is the lesson conveyed by Churchill’s failure, which is too great to be called tragedy. I mean the fact that Churchill’s heroic action on behalf of human freedom against Hitler only contributed, through no fault of Churchill’s, to increase the threat to freedom which is posed by Stalin or his successors. Churchill did the utmost that a man could do to counter that threat — publicly and most visibly in Greece and in Fulton, Missouri.
Not a whit less important than his deeds and speeches are his writings, above all his Marlborough — the greatest historical work written in our century, an inexhaustible mine of political wisdom and understanding, which should be required reading for every student of political science.
The death of Churchill reminds us of the limitations of our craft, and therewith of our duty. We have no higher duty, and no more pressing duty, than to remind ourselves and our students, of political greatness, human greatness, of the peaks of human excellence. For we are supposed to train ourselves and others in seeing things as they are, and this means above all in seeing their greatness and their misery, their excellence and their vileness, their nobility and their triumphs, and therefore never to mistake mediocrity, however brilliant, for true greatness.
And let this also be a reminder for Bay Area readers about Monday afternoon’s lecture I am hosting on campus at Berkeley by biographer Andrew Roberts. The lecture will go off at 5 pm in the Banatao Auditorium, which is found in Sutardja Dai Hall on the northeastern side of the campus, just adjacent to Hearst Avenue. Parking is always difficult, but manageable.
Since Churchill is politically incorrect these days, there may be some spirited discussion. I know of at least one sharp critic of Churchill who is planning to attend and challenge Andrew.
There will be a limited quantity of Andrew’s fine new biography available for sale after the lecture, which Andrew will be pleased to sign. And if you aren’t able to come, I’ll be recording the lecture, and also plan to tape a separate podcast with Andrew, so not to worry.