ON-Lion Letter

"Two friends of mine, Walter Berns and Harry Jaffa, died on January 10," begins an article by Bradley Prize recipient Harvey Mansfield in the February 9, 2015, issue of The Weekly Standard.  "They had not been on friendly terms for many years, but death took them together.  They were joined also by being leaders ... of a group of a dozen or so students of Leo Strauss (who died in 1973), the philosopher who revived philosophy and especially political philosophy from decline and irrelevance.  Strauss founded a school of 'Straussians,' tolerably well known but not well understood today, and these two were among the original Straussians who had learned from Strauss himself."

Mansfield is the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Government at Harvard University, where he has taught since 1962, and the Carol G. Simon Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution.

"This group among the original Straussians were scholars mainly of American politics and political thought rather than the old masters of the history of political philosophy with whom Strauss was so intimate," Mansfield continues in "Scholars of American Politics."  "Strauss had little to say in print about American politics, but he encouraged some of his students who were so inclined to study the politics of their country, which they did.

"There was another reason to attract Straussians into the study of American politics," according to Mansfield.  "This was the evident, self-announced status of America as a kind of philosophic republic, based on 'self-evident truths' according to the Declaration of Independence and offering an experiment in the possibility of founding 'good government' according to 'reflection and choice' rather than 'accident and force,' as is said on the first page of The Federalist.

"Berns was impressed by men of political and moral virtue," Mansfield writes.  "His work was in American constitutional law, but he approached that subject from the standpoint of virtue. ...  Berns upheld the view that freedom and virtue had to be compatible if not identical, and it was the purpose of the Constitution to set both government and people where they could excel.  The Constitution is as much a way of life as a structure of limited government, in fact more a way of life because the constitutional limitations on government were an invitation to virtue in the people, not a substitute for it."

Of Jaffa, Mansfield says he "was a man of greater zeal than loyalty, if loyalty means paying honor to things and persons as they are (as I believe it does).  As his kind of patriot he would pledge his fealty to an America that he would show was a philosophical republic.  Never a fan of Tocqueville, he did not appreciate Tocqueville's analysis of America as a country of Cartesians who had never read Descartes, and of moral citizens who hid their moral passion under an overmodest doctrine of 'self-interest well understood.'  Whereas Tocqueville makes no mention of the Declaration of Independence in his great work Democracy in America, Jaffa makes everything of it.  The declaration is not so much of 'independence' as it is of the self-evident truth of human equality, which in denying that men are divided into free and slave is the source of all morality and sound politics.  Jaffa did this through his study of Abraham Lincoln.

"Walter Berns and Harry Jaffa were both in their respective ways fighters for liberty, liberals of the old school -- hence conservatives today," Mansfield concludes.  "They were characters with plenty of definition, outstanding, beneficial, and memorable."

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