Two friends of mine, Walter Berns and Harry Jaffa, died on January 10. They had not been on friendly terms for many years, but death took them together. They were joined also by being leaders, with Herbert Storing, Martin Diamond, and Ralph Lerner, of a group of a dozen or so students of Leo Strauss (who died in 1973), the philosopher who revived philosophy and especially political philosophy from decline and irrelevance. Strauss founded a school of “Straussians,” tolerably well known but not well understood today, and these two were among the original Straussians who had learned from Strauss himself.
This group among the original Straussians were scholars mainly of American politics and political thought rather than the old masters of the history of political philosophy with whom Strauss was so intimate. Strauss had little to say in print about American politics, but he encouraged some of his students who were so inclined to study the politics of their country, which they did. America was Strauss’s adopted country, and he had some sensitivity for the difference between a naturalized citizen like himself and a native. He once gave it as a reason, no doubt jocular, why he should not be made president of the American Political Science Association—not that there was ever any groundswell to offer him this honor.
There was another reason to attract Strauss-ians into the study of American politics. This was the evident, self-announced status of America as a kind of philosophic republic, based on “self-evident truths” according to the Declaration of Independence and offering an experiment in the possibility of founding “good government” according to “reflection and choice” rather than “accident and force,” as is said on the first page of The Federalist. To enhance these statements of universal import we also have the testimony of Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address citing the Civil War as a test of whether America “or any nation so conceived and so dedicated” to a universal “proposition that all men are created equal” can long endure. And besides, there is the continued reference in The Federalist to political science as the source of American political institutions rather than parochial custom or inherited history.
This evidence of avowed purpose and conscious design adds up to a picture of America as the country that believes it has solved the political problem of popular government by establishing a government that is strong enough to defeat all dangers and free enough not to become a danger itself. This perfect republic designed by philosophy and science, however, is just what Strauss denied could be achieved. His work was defined by emphasis on the subversiveness of philosophy, which asks questions, as opposed to the self-satisfaction of politics, which believes it has answers and insists on them. For Strauss, the fate of Socrates in Athens, where he was killed for philosophizing, is emblematic of the human situation, in which men are torn between the twin needs (borrowing from The Federalist as above) to “reflect” in philosophy and to “choose” in politics. Philosophy and politics, as with Socrates and Athens, will always sense danger from one another, philosophy sensing complacency in politics, politics fearing intrusion from philosophy.
Among followers of Strauss, one issue is the importance of politics in the relationship
of politics and philosophy. Politics thinks it is the most important human activity because it decides who rules in the world. Every human activity, including the most private matters such as the philosopher’s reflection, takes place under the rule of some authority that protects or permits it. It is philosophy’s business to question this authority and its self-proclaimed importance, and to bring its assertions to the bar of reason and its assurances to the test of eternity. The issue then is whether philosophy’s claim to importance is sovereign over politics so as to eclipse politics, or does philosophy have something to learn from politics in a way that rescues the importance of politics?
Walter Berns and Harry Jaffa both took the latter view, and they studied American politics as a serious subject and America as a kind of philosophical republic. Since both of them spent their lives in the study of American politics, their lifelong professional premise required that they take the notion of political virtue seriously and not make its inferiority to philosophy their main theme—as does Plato in his Republic. But each of them did this differently.