Straussians love to talk about their conversion stories, which typically involve revelations in undergraduate courses taught by disciples of Leo Strauss. "The class was on the Nicomachean Ethics," begins the generic form of this story. "We didn't get past Book I." My introduction to Strauss was less revelatory. My sophomore year, I checked out Natural Right and History from the university library, waded through its first 50 pages or so, and returned it in anguished defeat. Part of the problem was lack of willpower. Of all the things to do outside of class hours—and there is a lot to do in Athens, Georgia, believe me—reading difficult texts was low on my list of priorities. And that was only part of the problem. I did not have the vocabulary or background to approach the text. As a student of public administration, Strauss's discourses on natural right differed from my textbooks as day differs from night. Perhaps most importantly, I did not have a teacher to guide me through the text.
Thank goodness then for Steven Hayward, who has written an accessible book about an inaccessible school of thought. "The Straussian project is an attempt to overcome the defect of absolutism through the moral latitude of the statesman without surrendering the objective moral basis of human life" is Hayward's concise summation. The main storyline of Patriotism Is Not Enough tracks the dispute between two prominent Straussians, Harry Jaffa and Walter Berns. That dispute is an interesting subject with a fair share of theatricality—they died on the same day in 2015, a fact that has drawn obvious comparisons to Jefferson and Adams. The rivals' final contest was a photo finish.
To simplify greatly, the substantive dispute between Berns and Jaffa was over the theoretical foundation of the American regime. "Jaffa and his followers think America has a ‘Declarational' soul while Berns and especially Harvey Mansfield Jr. think America has a ‘constitutional' soul," Hayward writes, repeating a useful formulation of Thomas G. West. Jaffa thought the Constitution could not be properly understood apart from the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration's bold claims about natural equality and rights, he thought, were the moral spirit that animated the regime and held its leaders to account. Like Lincoln, Jaffa thought the Declaration the "apple of gold" to the Constitution's frame of silver: the latter document was meant to "adorn and preserve" the former.
Berns thought the Declaration valuable but flawed "as a practical guide to political life" because its sweeping claims are susceptible to "mis-interpretation by radical egalitarians," who could argue that a true commitment to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness requires things like free college and free love. In Berns' view, the Constitution is a more reliable document because it enumerates the limits of state power in important areas, giving citizens a valuable guide to rely on when battling infringements on their rights. To Declarationists like Jaffa, the Constitutionalist view seems bloodless and legalistic. To Constitutionalists like Berns, the Declarationist view seems reckless, vague, and contestable.
This is not a trivial dispute. Which document one identifies as the basis of the American regime alters how one understands the regime, its history, its trials and triumphs. Still, as Hayward stresses in this ecumenical book, much more united Jaffa and Berns than divided them. Both men, like all Straussians, were loyal opponents of the modern academy—critics of the specialists who, influenced by Wilson and Weber, superintended the birth of "political science" departments in the mid-20th century. In the process, these specialists sidelined great texts that actually engage the minds of students in favor of textbooks and regressions, regressions, regressions. "Modern political science aims willy-nilly to replace the statesman with the bureaucrat," Hayward writes, "and substitute science (supposedly) for ambition." This is a perceptive statement, as this public administration degree-holder can attest. Tinkerers and technocrats have stripped politics of its nobility, of the elevated subject matter that could lead students to reflect on their lives and, perhaps, improve them.
The decline of political philosophy in education tracked with adverse moral developments in the broader political community, another subject that united Jaffa and Berns. They thought the flabby non-judgmentalism of the culture and its attempt to liberate the individual from traditional duties and commitments was antithetical to good citizenship. Ultimately, it was antithetical to human happiness. Echoing the Ancients, Jaffa wrote that this kind of culture meant "every man his own tyrant." Explains Hayward, "[T]he tyrant of the ‘liberated self' cannot be a patriot, because the ‘self,' as the greatest cause any individual is taught to think of, cannot conceive of a cause or purpose or meaning beyond himself." Berns, whose last book was titled Making Patriots, would have concurred.
Finally, Jaffa and Berns would have agreed that America was a good regime worthy of patriotic commitment. The title of this engaging volume, Patriotism Is Not Enough, speaks to this point of agreement. Patriotism is a sentiment for all places and times, arising naturally in man's affection for his home and countrymen. A higher patriotism combines natural love of country with the intellectual and moral love for justice. That patriotism—the proper sentiment of the philosopher, statesman, and educated citizen—is learned. And on that note, I repeat: thank goodness for Steven Hayward and all the teachers like him.
Published under: Book reviews