Postmodern Conservative

Walter Berns and Harry Jaffa

Berns and Jaffa, two legendary teachers and scholars, died last Saturday within hours of each other. What tied them together is they were both students of Leo Strauss, and all of their writing was fundamentally indebted to “disruptive innovations” that Strauss introduced into our understanding of thought and politics.

Jaffa (born in 1918) and Berns (1919) were so blessed by nature that they enjoyed very long and happy lives, each fully engaged with the people and world around them until very shortly before their deaths. Each had a lot to teach us about the art of living.

Some on the Web are suggesting this was a kind of Jefferson–Adams moment, where the last of the founders of a great constitutional tradition leave us almost at the same moment.

Jaffa and Berns, like Jefferson and Adams, had some serious, highly contentious, and widely publicized disputes. As far as I know, Jaffa and Berns did not follow the example of our philosopher-presidents by reconciling near the end, remembering in a most friendly way that their differences were trivial compared to the goods, concerns, and great accomplishments they shared in common. Still, even if personal barriers remained, Jaffa and Berns knew that they too were part of the same enterprise.

The first generation of “Straussians” were mostly scholars who aimed to be public intellectuals writing in the service of both their country and the future of liberty. The political context was first of all the Cold War and later the promiscuous deconstruction of free thought, responsible citizenship, and the relational foundation of virtue by various currents of the Sixties.

They were about defending American citizenship, which can’t be the same as Spartan citizenship. In America, citizens are devoted to universal principles about liberty and equality. Personal freedom has to be reconciled with civic virtue with the theoretical insight that rights can be exercised effectively only in a particular place with shared customs, traditions, virtues, loyalties, and beliefs or a ”regime.” So Jaffa and Berns were, like Socrates himself, for most practical purposes conservative and wrote against democracy’s self-indulgent and permissive excesses. They knew that “global citizenship” is necessarily an oxymoron, unless as a form of branding used in some global tyranny.

They were both moved by the classical insight that men are first of all citizens and only secondarily free persons or creatures devoted to a particular institutional religion or even philosophers. “First of all” might not mean “most deeply” but simply “most urgently.” That urgency is what united “Lockean individuals” with Biblical (including Thomist and other orthodox) believers against the Communist ideological lie that aimed to take out all manifestations of human dignity — that of the free citizen, the genuine friend, the husband and wife, the parent and child, the sovereign individual, the genuinely free thinker, and the creature. Maintaining this political unity has become progressively more tricky, given the changing character of the main threats to human dignity. Building a coalition defending “natural right” against ”History” was quite a formidable achievement, but now “natural rights” (a phrase that Berns and Jaffa knew embedded some ambiguity) have been displaced by “human rights,” which are rooted in neither nature nor History. Our progressives have often become libertarians or emphatically not about subordinating the free individual to any cause greater than himself.

Probably we need to think anew about the personal relationship between Christianity and Locke, as well as get better at being able to talk up with conviction the truth that institutional religion is not mainly a useful tool for social and civic bonding or incentivizing virtuous behavior but a genuine embodiment of the truth about who are as free and relational beings, who are citizens but more than citizens. Maybe we need to get real about the limits of classical political philosophy. But all that is for another day. And I’m not saying for a minute that both Berns and Jaffa weren’t thinking and rethinking their whole lives. The “turns” in Jaffa’s thought are the source of all manner of fruitful speculation. Jaffa and his students are noteworthy for their changes in orientation on the relationship between Locke and Aristotle, Locke and Thomas Aquinas, and Locke, Aristotle, Christianity, and America’s foundation. They constantly remind us that the questions are more obvious than the answers.

Jaffa and Berns also agreed that American civic unity needed more than “founding principles.” So they both talked up the poetry and heroism of Lincoln as the indispensable height of our civic devotion or even civic religion. So they were tough critics of conservatives who aren’t “liberals” in the 1964 sense on civil rights, and they thought that our justices could appeal to the Declaration of Independence and natural rights to interpret the written Constitution. They didn’t agree with Justice Kennedy about the kind of judicial activism rooted in the thought that the word “liberty” in the Constitution was given no fixed meaning in order that it might constantly evolve in the direction of an open-ended individualism.

Peter Augustine LawlerPeter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...

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