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Walter Berns, 1919-2015

Monday, January 12th, 2015

We mourn the loss of our friend and colleague Walter Berns, who passed away on Saturday at the age of 95. He was a distinguished scholar, a true patriot, and a deeply impressive man. As his former student, and then friend and colleague, Jeremy Rabkin, wrote introducing the website devoted to Bern’s work :

Walter Berns was a student of Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago in the early 1950s. Like a number of Strauss students of that era—notably, Martin Diamond, Harry Jaffa, and Herbert Storing—his work sought to apply the perspective of classical political philosophy to the study of American government and politics.

Almost all of Berns’ important publications reflect his appreciation of the classical view that “government” and “society” cannot be sharply separated. Both are closely related aspects of a political community’s way of life. Much of his writing reflects the classical view that democracy depends on the character of the citizens, so their opinions and beliefs, their personal habits and degree of self-discipline—in a word, their virtues—will matter to the prospects of democratic government.

But Berns also acknowledged—indeed, often emphasized—that early modern thinkers (notably Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Adam Smith) had tried to place politics on a new foundation and the American Founders largely embraced the new approach, with its promise of reducing religious conflict and enlarging opportunities for the creation of wealth. With his primary focus on constitutional law, Berns emphasized the challenge of limited government in an era that had become impatient with limits and confused about their purposes.

Much of Berns’ early work thus chided a doctrinaire liberalism that elevated selected individual rights—most often, the right to free speech—above every other consideration. In the 1950s and 1960s, he offered forthright defenses for “censorship” of pornography and curbs on offensive and subversive speech. By the 1970s, he turned his criticism against interpretations of the First Amendment that pursued separation of church and state to dogmatic extremes and then sought to exempt religious minorities from general legal obligations, still regarded as binding on all other citizens.

In later decades, Berns sought to defend capital punishment against constitutional claims that the death penalty is inherently “cruel and unusual.” Behind that, Berns saw, was a more general liberal uneasiness with the sort of indignation that demands such ultimate punishment. Berns sought to defend the justifiable anger of citizens supporting capital punishment for the most terrible crimes.

Throughout his career, Berns had offered brief but sharp criticisms of “world government” and of internationalist projects that abandoned that name but implied similar powers above and outside the nation-state. At the beginning of the new century, he published a full-length work, Making Patriots (2001), arguing for the enduring importance of patriotism in modern democracies, while acknowledging the difficulties liberal societies have in cultivating and sustaining that virtue. He offers the poetry and example of Abraham Lincoln as one answer to those difficulties—at least for Americans.

Through all his writings, Berns defended a kind of civic prudence, honoring the aims and concerns of the good citizen in modern democracies, while addressing the real threats and challenges faced by democratic societies, from dangerous tendencies within and hostile powers outside. In his early work, Berns argued against social scientists reducing politics to predictable “behaviors,” divorced from the actual political opinions of actual citizens. Later, he argued with as much vigor against judges and legal scholars who approached constitutional rights with existential commitment, proudly brushing aside common-sense limits or reasonable objections. First and last, Walter Berns has sought to defend American constitutional arrangements as reasonable accommodations to the enduring human challenges.

 

AEI