The death of Walter Berns (1919-2015) has deprived this country of a patriot both remarkably devoted and remarkably thoughtful. He was a thinker resolutely loyal to, yet resolutely reflective about, the United States. These two qualities were also characteristic of Walter as a person and as a friend.
Among the numerous subjects that this political theorist addressed, I am selecting for special (though far from exhaustive) attention these: constitutionalism, patriotism, punishment, public morality, civic education, and religion. How, and to what extent, has he illuminated these subjects? How consistent are his viewpoints regarding them, advanced in various contexts over many years?
In the days since Harry Jaffa and Walter Berns passed away, the former’s angry disputes with his fellow Straussians have received a lot of commentary. There are those who say it was all quite childish. And you know, a lot of it was, precisely because the differences so often seemed small or, when examined closely, not really differences at all. Still, some of the differences are real enough to merit our close attention.
On the more general issue of which student of Strauss is more faithful to the true and complete teaching of Leo Strauss, the most obvious response is that the capable students of any great teacher always grab on to part of what he (or she) taught and confuse it with the whole. Marx and Hegel. Alexandre Kojève and Hegel. Maybe even Aristotle and Plato.
This past Saturday, Walter Berns died at the age of 95. Walter Berns was one of the truly great constitutional scholars and political theorists of his generation, or any generation since. A student of Leo Strauss’s, he taught at Louisiana State University, Yale University, and (beginning in 1959) in Cornell University’s Department of Government, which he chaired for several years. He resigned his position in 1969, when a feckless university administration caved in to armed thugs who had occupied university buildings. Cornell exposed faculty members who urged a defense of liberal education and resistance to mob rule—Walter Berns and Allan Bloom…