by Chris Berger
A professor for whom I worked as a teaching assistant a number of years ago, a fascinating and intellectually generous man in his own right, had the good fortune of studying under the guidance of Leo Strauss, the (in)famous historian of political philosophy, in his twilight years at the University of Chicago in the sixties. Given my own interests and proclivities, I admit I would get a little giddy when he would tell his war stories from that time.
As it so happens, this professor had been in the classroom on January 25, 1965, when Strauss gave his now famous (well, in some circles) impromptu eulogy of Winston Churchill upon the British statesman’s death. In this short speech (the transcript runs four paragraphs) Strauss calls on students of political science to take seriously the distinction between mediocrity and greatness, wrong and right, ignorance and thoughtfulness, dogma and nuance in politics, citing Churchill as an exemplar to be followed.
It is an almost distasteful cliché nowadays to bemoan the decline of statesmanship and public discourse, and the election of Trump in the USA and the leadership campaigns of O’Leary, Leitch, and Kenney closer to home have made this a bad comedy. There’s an entire industry around it. Yet it is certainly the case that we no longer really talk of “statesmanship” or “statesmen” anymore but of “politicians”; that “citizens” have given way to “taxpayers” and “voters”; and that “discourse” has been displaced by “expression.” What is not so clear to us, the pundits notwithstanding, is why we should give a damn. We may have lost the distinction between the statesman and the politician, but what does that loss really entail? Is it anything more than semantic?
Strauss answered emphatically in the affirmative: it is much more than a matter of semantics. Something very real and very worthwhile was lost along with that distinction, Strauss insisted, and it was the duty of political science as a discipline to work to rediscover, to understand, and, perhaps, to recover it. Because Strauss’ speech is short, I will quote the entire thing here:
The death of Churchill is a healthy reminder to academic students of political science of their limitations, the limitations of their craft.
The tyrant stood at the pinnacle of his power. The contrast between the indomitable and magnanimous statesman and the insane tyrant—this spectacle in its clear simplicity was one of the greatest lessons which men can learn, at any time.
No less enlightening is the lesson conveyed by Churchill’s failure which is too great to be called tragedy. I mean the fact that Churchill’s heroic action on behalf of human freedom against Hitler only contributed, through no fault of Churchill’s, to increase the threat to freedom which is posed by Stalin or his successors. Churchill did the utmost that a man could do to counter that threat—publicly and most visibly in Greece and in Fulton, Missouri. Not a whit less important than his deeds and speeches are his writings, above all his “Marlborough”—the greatest historical work written in our century, an inexhaustible mine of political wisdom and understanding, which should be required reading for every student of political science.
The death of Churchill reminds us of the limitations of our craft, and therewith of our duty. We have no higher duty, and no more pressing duty, than to remind ourselves and our students, of political greatness, human greatness, of the peaks of human excellence. For we are supposed to train ourselves and others in seeing things as they are, and this means above all in seeing their greatness and their misery, their excellence and their vileness, their nobility and their triumphs, and therefore never to mistake mediocrity, however brilliant, for true greatness.
The insane tyrant in question is Hitler, of course, and the magnanimous statesman, Churchill. Readers will be struck immediately by the “old-fashioned” language at play in Strauss’s remarks. Specifically, it is very “Aristotelian,” laden with “value judgments.” (Incidentally, the professor I mentioned above added that, as a segue from this speech into the day’s lecture, which was the wrap-up on the course’s segment on social science positivism, Strauss ended by saying that the memory of Churchill serves as good reason to discard the silliness that is positivism’s fact-value distinction and existentialism’s historical relativism.)
As far as we are concerned, viewing the world from a post-modern perspective beyond good and evil, heroes and villains are the stuff of childish fairy tales. We certainly do not speak of magnanimous statesmen, nor even do we use the word “tyrant” very often, despite our eagerness to denounce the social injustice and imperialism of so many world leaders. To speak like this would be to pass judgments of value, which our cultural relativism cannot permit. Never mind our aforementioned abhorrence of imperialism – we do not make a habit of allowing logic to get in the way of a good protest. This is a pity, as putting a little more thought back into our opinions might, just might, allow us to give our causes a little more punch. (We’re starting to recover this language by discussing Trump and his ilk, however – oftentimes it’s overwrought and oblivious to the irony, but in rare occasions, it’s more sober, and open to reassessing our assumptions about the relativity of values.)
But Strauss is not just railing against newfangled social science relativism, decrying the loss of the good ol’ days. As he once pointedly put it, “A social science that cannot speak of tyranny with the same confidence with which medicine speaks, for example, of cancer, cannot understand social phenomena as what they are.” He concludes: “It is therefore not scientific” (On Tyranny, “Restatement on Xenophon’s Hiero”, p. 177). Strauss thus challenges, nay compels us to stand up and be counted: if we are going to be putting on the pretense of studying and teaching social science, we are going to have to be able to demonstrate that we have something of substance to say about social and political reality as it is; sooner or later, we are going to have to call a spade a spade and pass judgment, or relinquish our title as social scientists. What would we then be without that title, continuing to lecture and debate on social and political matters without any claim to be saying something true about them? Sophists and charlatans? Most likely.
Strauss’s unabashed distinction between noble statesmen and evil tyrants points to something that is remarkable in its stark contrast to modern social science: his focus on the great deeds of particular individuals as opposed to abstract forces of “society.” “Society” is an abstraction because it paints human associations as amorphous masses controlled by power structures beyond their control or comprehension, and humans as automatons governed by ideology as an incomprehensible, overarching force. Whereas contemporary social science behaviouralism and structuralism emphasize the control of these abstract forces over human choice and action, thereby rendering not only human action but human knowing inescapably bound to historical and cultural context, Strauss insisted on the ability of the great acts and conscious choices of individuals, particularly of exceptional ones, to alter radically the course of “society.”
The alternative to society as an abstraction from what human beings actually think and do is the regime, the ordering of human interaction and rule within a social group. Part of Strauss’s recovery of classical political philosophy was his rediscovery of the regime not just as a set of institutions but as the chosen set of principles that reflect what a group of people believes is important. Hence you have aristocracies that esteem excellence in virtue and nobility; oligarchies that esteem wealth and familial inheritance; democracies that esteem freedom of the many; and so on, to name but a few classic examples. Political science for Strauss, following the classical political philosophers, therefore, is the study of the regime; it is a political science that takes as its beginning point the “pre-scientific” or “common-sense,” if you will, experiences of individuals as they are actually lived; it arises directly out of political life and the debates and disputes over what is good and worthwhile for a good life and the regime that reflects what is thought to conduce to it. It is this lived experience that shows us why humans are political, i.e. why we live not only socially but in conversation and disagreement about how those groups should be ordered, which in turn reflects the universal human concern with attaining happiness or the good life. A political science that does not take its bearings from these fundamental, pre-scientific experiences cannot understand the political, and it cannot be scientific in any meaningful sense.
It is a short step from this fundamental beginning point to the importance of great individuals for Strauss. Contrary to the picture painted by modern sociology, “society” does not exist in some disembodied, trans-human, monolithically all-powerful force; we can use the argument that society shapes and controls individuals for only so long before we are compelled to realize that it is human beings who create it, specifically human beings who, by exceptional talent, drive of will, and intelligence make laws or set by their own example the norms of what will be taken to be choiceworthy. Enter the power of individuals to shape society.
In stark contrast to another influential theorist of modern tyranny, Hannah Arendt, Strauss argued that Nazi Germany and the Allied liberal democratic cause were incomprehensible without Hitler and Churchill, respectively. Arendt had argued that the Nazi death camps had proven that human nature could be changed or even eliminated entirely by tyranny, that “the fact of Auschwitz” had shown that humans could be made into subhuman animals by totalitarian control; she saw Nietzsche’s dreaded Last Man exemplified by those human beings who had been broken down and reduced to automatons marching to their doom (The Origins of Totalitarianism, part 3).
The grounds of Arendt’s position become clearer with reference to her chief philosophical influence, Martin Heidegger, and his account of human thought and action as bound to and within historical context. According to this account, individuals cannot escape time and place and are conditioned by that context such that truly individual thought and action, understood as thought and action that could break free from the control of one’s context, is impossible; but of course, this thesis itself understands itself as saying something universal, ergo trans-historical, about human nature, thereby begging the question and rendering itself suspect at best. (It is also worth contrasting Arendt’s account with Viktor E. Frankl’s in Man’s Search for Meaning – an existential psychiatrist, founder of logotherapy, theorist of the “will to meaning,” and himself a survivor of Auschwitz, Frankl paints a very different picture of human beings as capable of remarkable, resolute resilience under the most dehumanizing circumstances.)
If we wish to avoid this kind of incoherence and the moral and political traps in which it entangle us, tangible examples of evidence in support of Strauss’s focus on individual human beings and rejection of historical determinism would be helpful. Nazi Germany cannot be understood without reference to individuals, namely Hitler, because Nazism was not an historically or socially inevitable outcome. Nazism arose when young, intelligent, motivated, and highly educated Germans, horrified at the prospect of universal homogeneity under communism, utterly disillusioned by the feebleness and ineptitude of liberal democratic bureaucracy, intoxicated by the prospect of the culture-creating, value-positing “Over-Man,” sought to re-assert German dignity and nobility in a nihilistic age. Hitler offered that.
But Hitler was not the only alternative. As Strauss said to Karl Lowith in a letter in the thirties, options were limited when viewed from within the confines of that situation; the disgust with the possibility of communism and contempt for the failure of liberalism in Germany at that time meant that the right was seen by most eyes to be the only credible alternative with its assertion of virtue and nobility, and therefore political opposition to Nazism inside Germany could only effectively come from the right, since the left and centre had lost credibility entirely; but the pursuit of empire and the extermination of opposition and “lesser” peoples were the conscious choices of individuals, and not necessities of the political alternatives as such. Mussolini’s Italy is an example of this: a hard-right regime based on massive ego and draconian policies and appealing to nationalistic glory, to be sure, but not approaching the insanity of National Socialism. Trumpist populism may be another, more contemporary example. It takes the singular energy of an exceptional individual, one who can turn the tide against the impersonal forces of the seemingly inescapable political alternatives, to alter the course.
Churchill’s practical political prudence represents this, par excellence. As Strauss says in his eulogy to the statesman, Churchill served by his own example as the counterargument to the political excesses of reactionism and as the refutation of the necessity of liberal democracy’s feebleness as represented by Weimar, rallying the case in favour of liberal democracy as the best alternative available to us. An argument against Churchill the individual’s indispensability to Allied victory, and therewith the victory of liberal democracy in the face of nihilism, will have its work cut out for it.
Strauss’s purpose in encouraging political scientists to study Churchill’s Life of Marlborough is to establish a counterpoint to sociological abstraction from the deeds and arguments of individuals, which enfeebles the ability of political scientists and political actors alike to see clearly and judge between greatness and mediocrity. The inability to draw this distinction indeed makes a populace fodder for authoritarian and tyrannical designs. Strauss almost never took let alone advocated for political positions in his writings or lectures, but if there was any practical political cause he thought worthwhile, it was the push-back against modern tendencies of universal homogeneity and tribal identity, brought about by political and intellectual complacence, and the tyrannical immoderation brought about by ill-informed reactionism, apolitical cynicism, and anti-philosophic utopianism.
The practical side of this endeavour was to awaken respect for and pursuit of individual initiative and vision in pushing for what is the best possible at a given time while averting the worst. This is all for the sake of what Strauss was convinced, and what he argued so persuasively, was the crowning human achievement and way of life: the philosophic life devoted to pursuing knowledge. This crowning achievement would be impossible under the universal homogeneity and the reactionary political responses to it, which proved just as destructive of human excellence and flourishing.
Political actors and scientists who can articulate sound reasons in favour of liberal democracy, the consciously chosen regime type most conducive in a diverse, technological, and global world to preserving the conditions both for the best life and for humane lives for the many, need to be cultivated, Strauss thought. And it is this cultivation that is under threat from technical abstraction and reactionary tribalism alike. A type of education that holds excellence as a model by entertaining the possibility of thinking and acting in a way that breaks free of the shackles of time, place, and conditions, or in other words that reminds us of peak examples of individual freedom and achievement, is the counterpoison. And for us today, with the rise of illiberal populism and the erosion of democratic institutions, students and practitioners of political science and public prudence need to look once more to the idea of statesmanship. Human beings need to be, and can be, empowered to alter seemingly inescapable political horizons. We just need to recover the examples, and this entails recovering political philosophy and the love of truth about what is good. Without this, we cannot presume to judge, and we are powerless to resist or act.
Visual courtesy of Wikimedia Commons