Judging Churchill

Speaking in class at the University of Chicago on January 25, 1965, Leo Strauss famously commented on Churchill’s death:

The death of Churchill is a healthy reminder to academic 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….

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. In our age this duty demands of us in the first place that we liberate ourselves from the supposition that value statements cannot be factual statements.

Andrew Roberts is a professional historian who brings the spirit of Strauss’s comments on Churchill to bear in his brilliant review of The Cambridge Companion to Winston Churchill. Roberts knows all there is to know about Churchill, but most of all he knows his greatness. He accordingly finds the Cambridge Companion‘s approach to Churchill wanting in Strauss’s sense:

Allen Packwood, Director of the Churchill Archives, is the editor of this collection of twenty academic essays on Churchill. Eighteen are impressive and well written contributions to the sum of our knowledge on Churchill. No one could be better qualified than the charming and equable Mr. Packwood to edit this book, which he makes clear in his introduction is an attempt to introduce “more nuance” into “Churchill’s contested legacy.” He has written or co-written four of the contributions. He is entirely even-handed in his approach, as is his duty as an academic.

The Cambridge Companion will therefore give you plenty of insights into “how [Churchill] has become such a controversial figure,” but few into what made him the genius, hero and giant that he was and remains. Academics revel in pointing out their subjects’ feet of clay, but all too often pay too little attention to the marble in the rest of the statue. This is a relatively new phenomenon.

The Hoover Institution included Roberts’s review in one of its daily email summaries of the work of Hoover scholars last week. I haven’t read a review I enjoyed as much as I did this one in a long time. Please check it out here if you have any interest.

Notice: All comments are subject to moderation. Our comments are intended to be a forum for civil discourse bearing on the subject under discussion. Commenters who stray beyond the bounds of civility or employ what we deem gratuitous vulgarity in a comment — including, but not limited to, “s***,” “f***,” “a*******,” or one of their many variants — will be banned without further notice in the sole discretion of the site moderator.