U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Harry Jaffa (1918-2015) and Walter Berns (1919-2015)

News arrived today of the death of two of the most notable remaining students of Leo Strauss, Harry Jaffa and Walter Berns, on January 10. As someone who spent a long time (too long really) thinking about the Straussians, I figured that I should write something on the blog about them. Today was also, however, the first day of teaching here at OU and, after two classes and an evening film screening, I finally have the first block of time since hearing the news to write something about them and – what I find as interesting – early reaction to their deaths.

Harry Jaffa was one of Leo Strauss’s first graduate students, having studied with Strauss at the New School in the 1940s before Strauss departed for the University of Chicago at the end of that decade. The fairly thorough New York Times obituary published today notes what are in many ways the most important and best known aspects of Jaffa’s career. Outside the often hermetic world of Straussian thought, Jaffa’s best known scholarship is his work on Lincoln, especially The Crisis of the House Divided (1959), a reading of the Lincoln-Douglas debates that, I’ve been told, is still read by those studying Lincoln’s political thought. Jaffa is also widely known for having suggested to Barry Goldwater what would become the most infamous lines of his 1964 Republican Convention speech: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Though, as the Times correctly notes, Martin Luther King, Jr., expressed a very similar thought inhis “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” (Jaffa called the lines a paraphrased of Cicero), the press and public in 1964 seized on these two sentences as proof of Goldwater’s dangerous extremism. (“My God, he’s planning to run as Goldwater,” a reporter is said to have remarked as the candidate finished that convention speech.)

The Times has yet to publish an obit for Walter Berns, who was a less well-known figure outside of political philosophy and movement conservative circles than was Jaffa, though he was a productive and significant scholar in his own right. He also played a key role in an event that is of interest, I think, to many readers of this blog. In the spring of 1969, armed students in the Afro-American Society occupied Willard Straight Hall at Cornell and demanded that the university speed up the process of creating an African American studies program. When the administration acceded to this demand by announcing the creation of such a program in order to bring the occupation to an end, Berns was among the faculty (concentrated in the Government and History Departments) most bitterly opposed to the administration’s decision. Cornell’s Government Department had become a major center for Straussian political philosophy; in addition to Berns, Allan Bloom, and Werner Dannhauser were on the faculty at Cornell and had become the object of much criticism well before the Straight Hall takeover. After ’69, Berns and Bloom would depart for the University of Toronto. The events at Cornell are well covered by Donald Alexander Downs’s book Cornell ’69. And they would also in many ways provide the basis for Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, which recounts the Cornell events towards its end.

Conservatives have greeted this pair of deaths by comparing Strauss and Berns to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who famously both died on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. This comparison has already been made by Bill Kristol (himself a Straussian), Jonah Goldberg, and Peter Augustine Lawler.

But as the journalist Jeet Heer noted on Twitter today [h/t LD Burnett], Berns and Jaffa were anything but friendly with each other. Indeed, they were quite bitter enemies, both philosophically and personally. Jaffa was the leading figure of the so-called West Coast Straussians; Berns was a leading East Coast Straussian.[1] I don’t have the time or energy at the moment to go into great detail on the origin and significance of the so-called Crisis of the Strauss Divided represented by this division. The shortest way to describe the distinction is that Jaffa and his fellow West Coasters believe that the American Founding, by drawing on and updating the virtues of Classical political philosophy, essentially offers a solution to the crisis of modernity. East Coasters feel that the U.S. regime bears the fatal flaws of modernity. The political upshot is that the West Coasters end up being, in many ways, much more conventional reactionaries than the East Coasters…though if you look under the hood of West Coast Straussianism, it’s also fairly distinctive because of Jaffa’s (unusual among conservatives) placing equality at the very center of his positive understanding of the American regime (hence his valorizing Lincoln).

There is a fair bit of disagreement about the origins of this split. Explanations include: Strauss’s own views evolving between his years at the New School (where Jaffa trained) to his time at Chicago (where Berns and most of his other students studied with him); Strauss’s having only taught Jaffa exoteric teachings, reserving his true teachings for the folks who would become East Coasters (this is Shadia Drury’s view); legitimate disagreements over how to resolve real tensions at the heart of Strauss’s thought (Catherine and Michael Zuckert’s view); or even the fact that leading East Coasters like Bloom were sent by Strauss to study with Alexandre Kojève in France but Jaffa was not. This philosophical divide was deepened by Jaffa’s own tendency to turn philosophical disagreements into personal ones. It’s not surprising, then that the East Coasters (like Kristol or Jeremy Rabkin) are saying nicer things about Jaffa than some of Jaffa’s minions are about Berns. At any rate, in addition to the fact that they did not help found a nation, Jaffa and Berns never reconciled as Adams and Jefferson did. That the Adams-and-Jefferson comparison became so instantly popular among conservatives in the wake of Jaffa’s and Bern’s death tells us more about the symbolic place of the Straussians among contemporary conservative public intellectuals than it does about Berns and Jaffa themselves.

[1] Catherine and Michael Zuckert place Berns (or at least the later Berns) among what they call the “Midwest Straussians,” but this isn’t really a category that anyone else uses. Most people lump Zuckert’s Midwesterners with the East Coasters.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ben,
    Thanks for this. Very interesting.

    I have nothing substantive to add, though I did briefly (and I mean briefly) meet Berns once. Someone I knew who worked at American Enterprise Institute (an org. whose views I hasten to say I *strongly* disagree with) invited me there once for a particular reason (which wd take too long to go into), and he introduced me to Berns who was coming off an elevator as we were getting on. And we no doubt shook hands (fairly mandatory under the circumstances), and then got on the elevator, and that was it.

    I don’t think many Straussians ended up at AEI, but Berns eventually did. Plus there was the late Robert Goldwin [?] (if I’m remembering this name correctly — I’ll have to double check) who worked for Gerald Ford, had ties to Rumsfeld, and was also a Straussian and AEI-connected. (Geez, I hope that’s right — if not I’ll have to correct it later.)

  2. During his sabbatical at Chicago, to complete the draft of “Crisis of the House Divided” he also continued attending Strauss lectures and seminars, and became a close confidant of Bob Goldwin’s at the time, and also participated with Bob as an Advisor to Chuck Percy, on his project to write the Republican Platform for the 1960 election. Percy made it clear to President Eisenhower that the real work had been done by Goldwin and Jaffa, and each received a letter of thanks from the President. Later, both Goldwin and Jaffa were advisors and drafters of speeches for Percy in his run for the Senate, as well as after he was elected to the Senate.

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