"Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us,” we are told. So we take this occasion to praise three admirable individuals who died in the past two weeks. Each of them was extraordinary in his or her own right, but each of them also exemplified the virtues of a remarkable generation.
Anna Schwartz, who died June 21 at age 96, was an economist who helped overturn the understanding of the causes of the Great Depression. Writing with her coauthor, Milton Friedman, she showed that government—in this case, the Federal Reserve—helped turn a business-cycle recession into a full-blown depression. More generally, her rigorous scholarship and careful analysis over the years exposed wishful policy-making and put facile punditry to shame—and bolstered the empirical case for limited government, free markets, and the rule of law.
Yitzhak Shamir, who died June 30 also at age 96, immigrated to Palestine in 1935. After first serving in the Zionist military organization, the Irgun Zvai Leumi, he led the militant Lohamei Herut Israel—Fighters for the Freedom of Israel—in the 1940s in the fight for Israel’s independence. His means were not always respectable, and he did what he judged necessary—though no more. Founders cannot always be fastidious, and statesmanship involves moral dilemmas. Shamir resolved those dilemmas in favor of the safety and well-being of the Jewish people in the land of Israel. Then, as foreign minister and prime minister 40 years later, he resisted pressure for concessions by Israel for the sake of a fanciful peace process—while opening wide the doors of Israel to massive immigration from Russia and elsewhere, immigration that has, as he foresaw, immensely strengthened the nation he served so selflessly and resolutely.
Joseph Cropsey, who died July 1 at age 92, was a professor of political philosophy at the University of Chicago and an early student and associate of the philosopher Leo Strauss. Convinced that Strauss had rediscovered the great tradition of political philosophy and reopened the possibility of seriously encountering the great thinkers of the past, he devoted himself to teaching alongside and working on behalf of Strauss, notably organizing the important volume of essays that he coedited with him, History of Political Philosophy. He also compiled his own lasting and distinguished body of scholarship on subjects ranging from Plato to Adam Smith.
Schwartz, Shamir, and Cropsey were by all accounts very impressive human beings: loving spouses and fine parents, good and loyal friends, dedicated and responsible colleagues, individuals of humane disposition and, as it happens, dry wit.
But what is most striking about all three of them is a certain intellectual, moral, and political toughness. They faced challenge and tragedy. They set out against strong currents, joined in the beginning by only a few colleagues, opposed in their various enterprises by large and powerful establishments and a complacent and dominant conventional wisdom. They resolutely faced the odds against them, they were disciplined and intelligent in pursuing their causes, they fought, they persevered, and, to a considerable degree, they prevailed—against all the powers that stood in their way, against all the temptations to go along and get along.
They were strong leaders. But they were strong enough to be willing to follow those they deemed worth following, men of the first rank whom they admired and thought had gotten it right. Joe Cropsey—a considerable scholar and thinker—was willing to serve as a junior partner to his teacher, Leo Strauss. Yitzhak Shamir—a forceful fighter and leader—was proud to serve as a lieutenant to his captains, Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin. Anna Schwartz—who had a more subtle understanding of the relationship of politics to economics than many of her colleagues—was happy to cede the spotlight to them.
What a group! What representatives of a departing generation! One looks up in admiration at their austere courage, their flinty strength, their determination to think seriously about the right path and then set out on it and stick to it—without any expectation of immediate reward or easy gratification.
Their lives remind us of the difference between success, however lauded, and true human achievement, and of the difference between mediocrity, however brilliant, and lasting distinction. And their lives remind us of the moral and intellectual conditions of freedom.