James Q. Wilson, perhaps the best political scientist of the past half-century, has died. I took his course as an undergraduate, was a teaching assistant for him as a graduate student, and he served on my dissertation committee. We stayed in touch over the years, though I think I was too intimidated by him ever really to seek to become a good friend.
His work speaks for itself—an almost unique combination of empirical social science, deep common sense, and wide-ranging historical and philosophical erudition. His many essays over the years in the Public Interest have been assembled on the website of National Affairs. Two of his essays for THE WEEKLY STANDARD give perhaps more of a sense of the man, as opposed to the scholar.
One was a tribute in December 1995 to the cartoon strip, “Calvin and Hobbes,” upon the announcement by its creator, Bill Watterson, of its coming to an end.
Here's the beginning of Jim's piece:
Were you a newspaper editor, imagine your reaction if a cartoonist came to you and proposed a comic strip that would offer the reader moral instruction conveyed by the antics of a self-centered six-year-old boy whom only saintly parents could love and no other child could tolerate. The strip would have no running story line, would contain few if any jokes, and would from time to time be devoted to ruminations on the meaning of life. And, oh yes, the boy would talk to a stuffed tiger.
Whatever editor signed up Bill Watterson despite this rather unpromising scenario deserves the heartfelt thanks of all of us who have for years regarded reading "Calvin and Hobbes" as the necessary beginning of every day. Watterson has decided to bring his comic strip to a close at the end of December. So now we are to lose the boy, the tiger, and our only popular explication of the moral philosophy of Aristotle.
Whether they know it or not, most people are intuitive Aristotelians. They know that character is important, that it is formed by the routine activities of family and village life, and that having a good character is in the long run the only route to such happiness as people can achieve through their own efforts. Many people are, of course, more than Aristotelians; they are also Christians, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, or whatever, but though faith often adds much to this ancient view, it rarely subtracts much.
And read Jim's wonderful tribute to his teacher and friend, Edward C. Banfield, upon his death in October 1999. Jim wrote, in words that obviously can be applied to Jim as well:
IN THE INCREASINGLY DULL, narrow, methodologically obscure world of the social sciences, it is hard to find a mind that speaks not only to its students but to its nation. Most scholars can't write, many can't think. Ed Banfield could write and think....
A few months ago, a group of Ed's former students and colleagues met for two days to discuss his work. Our fondness for this amusing and gregarious man was manifest, as were our memories of the tortures through which he put us as he taught us to think and write. Rereading his work as a whole reminded us that we had been privileged to know one of the best minds we had ever encountered, a person whose rigorous intellect and extraordinary knowledge created a standard to which all of us aspired but which none of us attained.
Jim Wilson also created a standard to which we aspire, and fail to attain. For this—for his writings, for his friendship, for his example—even as we mourn his death, we are grateful for his life.