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Editor’s note: The following words of tribute in honor of AEI Resident Scholar Walter Berns were delivered September 20, 2011 at an event commemorating Constitution Day.
It is absolutely fitting and proper to honor Walter Berns in connection with Constitution Day. The U.S. Constitution, and the underlying ideas and ideals of “constitutionalism,” have been the central focus of Walter’s intellectual life. In his teaching and writings, he has expounded their foundational and enduring significance for the American polity, and he has defended their wisdom against the depredations of famous law professors and Supreme Court Justices.
Right from the start, Walter showed his capacity and courage for swimming against the stream in the cause of the right and the good. The guiding spirit of his career was heralded already in his first academic publication, in 1953, in which this untenured assistant professor, in the name of justice and due process of law, offered a rigorous and spirited critique of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s Supreme Court’s opinion in Buck v. Bell, upholding involuntary eugenic sterilization of the mentally retarded and celebrated in Holmes’s smug dictum, “Three generations of imbeciles is enough.”
Walter carefully and subtly takes up permanent challenges to the cultivation of patriotic attachment in modern America.
As his writings over a lifetime make plain, Walter’s devotion to constitutionalism goes deeper than the written document and the institutions it created, and his appreciation of the Constitution itself is richer than that of jurists who must interpret it and lawyers who look to it as the bedrock law of the American polity. Like his friends and remarkable fellow teachers of American constitutionalism, Robert Goldwin, Herbert Storing, and Martin Diamond—all fellow students of Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago during its golden age—Walter’s work has always been informed by lifelong study of political philosophy and, therefore, also by a sensitivity to and a concern for certain extra-Constitutional yet constitutive conditions, cultural and spiritual, for the flourishing of the American constitutional order: civic virtue, love of country, and the education of the young. Time permits but the briefest glance at some of Walter’s writings on each of these crucial subjects.
Virtue and Self-Governance
Mindful of the difficulty of cultivating virtue in a polity that emphasizes rights over duties and whose citizens are encouraged, by the march of equality, to shed traditional moral teachings that counter self-absorption, Walter—without a touch of moral preening or priggishness—has written often about the importance of virtue for a self-governing people. In the 1960s and 1970s, when the issue was acutely joined, Walter was a vigorous upholder of the, in my view, correct but—alas—losing side of the legal and cultural debate about the limits of freedom of speech in relation to obscenity and pornography. (His first book, based on his doctoral dissertation, was entitled Freedom, Virtue and the First Amendment.) Exactly 40 years ago, in a prescient article in The Public Interest entitled “Pornography vs. Democracy: The Case for Censorship,” Walter offered a subtle and sophisticated defense of censorship in the name of the mores necessary for the survival of a free people. Pointing out that the pleasure we derive from the arts not only forms our tastes but also “helps determine the kind of men we become, and helps shape the lives of those with whom and among whom we live,” he raised some unfashionable questions about art and politics:
Is it politically uninteresting whether men derive pleasure from performing their duties as citizens, fathers, and husbands or, on the other hand, from watching their laws and customs and institutions being ridiculed on the stage? Whether the passions are excited by, and the affections drawn to, what is noble or what is base? Whether the relations between men and women are depicted in terms of an eroticism wholly divorced from love and calculated to destroy the capacity for love and the institutions, such as the family, that depend on love? Whether a dramatist uses pleasure to attach men to what is beautiful or to what is ugly?
Walter then proceeded to show that the political effect, if not also the intended purpose, of the newly fashionable obscenity, licensed by revisionist First Amendment jurisprudence, was to make us shameless, oblivious to the distinction between public and private, and therefore hostile both to the protection of the delicate sphere of human love and to politically relevant self-command:
There is a connection between self-restraint and shame, and therefore a connection between shame and self-government or democracy. There is, therefore, a political danger in promoting shamelessness and the fullest self-expression or indulgence. To live together requires rules and a governing of the passions, and those who are without shame will be unruly and unrulable; having lost the ability to restrain themselves by observing the rules they collectively give themselves, they will have to be ruled by others. Tyranny is the natural and inevitable mode of government for the shameless and self-indulgent who have carried liberty beyond any restraint, natural and conventional.
Looking at the changes in American popular culture and American mores since his article was written in 1971, who would dare say that Walter was mistaken?
Not content to show that the liberty demanded by the arts is not necessarily good for civil society, Walter then showed why the unwillingness to distinguish between the obscene and the non-obscene also destroys our ability to distinguish between art and trash, and finally also between good and evil, the true and the false, the noble and the base. Looking at the changes in American popular culture and American mores since this article was written in 1971, who would dare say that Walter was mistaken?
The virtues of civic life, beginning with self-command and reaching toward public-spiritedness—although especially important for self-governing citizens—are not peculiarly American. Closer to what makes us a nation, and the exceptional nation in human history, is the fact of our founding on philosophical principles, expressed in the Declaration of Independence: equal and unalienable natural rights, to be made secure by government, which governs legitimately only by consent of the governed. Yet, as Walter among others have stressed, these American principles, even as stated in 1776, are in fact universal, capable of gaining the rational assent of any thoughtful human being. Something more fundamental than mere cognitive agreement with our principles is required for the attachment of the citizens and for the well-being and, indeed, the very survival of the American polity. These depend on love of country, and, when push comes to shove, on the willingness of its citizens to defend and, if necessary, to give their lives for her. Patriotism is the second extra-Constitutional theme of Walter’s scholarship, and the subject of his superb little book, Making Patriots.
Patriots are not born, they are made. Their formation is even more a matter of the heart than of the head, and it takes place from the earliest ages.
Written shortly before 9/11, for a general audience, Walter’s Making Patriots seeks to educate his fellow Americans both in the need for patriotism and in the difficulties in securing it today. Unlike ancient republics like Sparta, where all male children were reared for warfare and no distinction existed between citizen and patriot, legal citizens of the United States may enjoy the privileges and immunities of citizenship at little personal cost, and without any obligation to serve or even love their country. In fact, patriotic devotion among us is, paradoxically, rendered more difficult precisely because of several blessed features of the American Republic for which, in truth, we citizens should feel grateful to our country: the protection of individual rights of life, liberty, and the private—and privatizing—pursuit of happiness, each according to his own idea of happiness; religious freedom and the right to worship—or not worship—a God whose moral teachings need not always square with the demands of American law and Who commands us to love Him “with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your might”; and, at the same time, the encouragement of commerce and the love of private gain, a more solid foundation for civic peace and prosperity than the higher moral demands of duty, piety, and virtue, but one that tends to produce self-serving entrepreneurs rather than self-sacrificing patriots. Walter carefully and subtly takes up these and other permanent challenges to the cultivation of patriotic attachment in modern America, and then turns to the area where our novel circumstances give the greatest cause for concern: the education of the young, or one should rather say, their mis-education.
Patriots are not born, they are made. Their formation is even more a matter of the heart than of the head, and it takes place from the earliest ages. Although the Constitution is silent on education—this was a matter left to the states—the Founders were very concerned about the education of citizens for self-government. Jefferson proposed a system of universal public education that would render our children “worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens.” Walter reviews the efforts associated with such names as Noah Webster and William McGuffey, among others, to inculcate belief in God, moral virtue, and love of country, along with the teaching of reading, writing, and arithmetic, efforts that lasted, successfully, well into the early 20th century. And then things began to unravel. Supreme Court decisions in the 1940s, applying to the states for the first time the First Amendment’s separation of church and the national state, began the inexorable secularization of public education. How were virtue and love of country to be promoted once religious teachings were banished from the public education of the young? It was from there but a short decline into the belief that public schools should not be promoting patriotism at all, should not be arguing for the superiority of one way of life above another, should instead be teaching the young that preferential love of your own was indefensible and dangerous, that patriotism was in fact the last refuge of scoundrels. To begin to remedy these educational diseases, Walter suggests that we must pay renewed attention to the lives of those Americans who have not only grappled with the nation’s gravest troubles, but whose words have helped their fellow countrymen understand and appreciate the gift that is American citizenship. Walter gives us splendid and inspiring chapters on Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, men whose words and deeds can still be a beacon for budding—and aging—patriots.
Lincoln: National Poet
How were virtue and love of country to be promoted once religious teachings were banished from the public education of the young?
Education of the heart is more the work of poets than of philosophers and statesmen, and this is especially true for the making of patriots. Fortunately for the American Republic, our greatest statesman has also been our greatest national poet. Abraham Lincoln has been a lifelong preoccupation of Walter Berns, who grew up—as I did—in Chicago, where Lincoln was the American most to be admired.
Walter has many times taught courses on Lincoln’s life and thought, and written repeatedly about him. To celebrate the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, Walter gave his last public lecture in this room, entitled “Lincoln at Two Hundred: Why We Still Read the Sixteenth President.” In this moving tribute, Walter offered us additional reasons for sharing his regard for Lincoln, finishing with special attention to Lincoln’s greatest speeches: the last paragraph of the First Inaugural, the Gettysburg Address, and the Second Inaugural. As Homer was poet or maker of the Greeks, so Walter’s Lincoln is poet or maker of the Americans, both by teaching us, in memorable words, who we are and what we as a nation nobly aspire to, and also, by his own heroic and self-sacrificing example, what it takes to defend, preserve, and live up to the highest principles of our common life.
Walter finished that beautiful lecture as follows:
We say that a man can be known by the company he keeps. So I say that a nation, a people, can be known and judged by its heroes, by whom it honors above all others. We pay ourselves the greatest compliment when we say that Abraham Lincoln is that man for us.
I would like to add that we at the American Enterprise Institute pay ourselves a very great compliment indeed when we celebrate and honor our colleague and teacher, Walter Berns. His life and work, defending and honoring the American Republic and its great heroes, is a model and inspiration for all who have been blessed to know and to learn from him.
Leon R. Kass, MD, is the Addie Clark Harding Professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the College at the University of Chicago and is the Madden-Jewett Chair at the American Enterprise Institute.
Image by Rob Green | Bergman Group
The life and work of Walter Berns, defending and honoring the American Republic and its great heroes, is a model and inspiration for all.
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