Walter Berns, professor emeritus of government at Georgetown University and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, died Saturday, January 10, 2015, at the age of 95. Commentators have noted that the coincidence of his death with that of Harry Jaffa, a fellow Straussian with whom he often disagreed, evokes the providential timing of the deaths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. For me, however, Mr. Berns — as all his students respectfully called him — was a providential figure for altogether different reasons.
Simply put, I would not be where I am today if I hadn’t audited the last course he taught at Georgetown. Slogging away as an economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington, I dreamt of graduate school while taking Latin and Greek courses at the Department of Agriculture night school (who knew such things existed at taxpayer expense?), but I didn’t know what I wanted to study. On the advice of my friend John J. Miller, I called Mr. Berns, who immediately told me he was about to retire from teaching and would be of little help to me for future studies. I replied that I only wanted to audit his course, which he very graciously let me do.
The course was on Tocqueville, one of his mainstays along with Lincoln and the American Founding. He told the class how he knew it was time to retire: His doctor had told him to take a day off and skip his Monday evening teaching appointment. Mr. Berns said it was the only class he’d had to cancel in his 40 years of teaching. Teaching was indeed his life and his vocation, not only because he knew Tocqueville so well but because of his love of students, needling and challenging them throughout the semester. To this day, I recall his witty remarks and virtually all of the references to films and books that confirmed some point in Tocqueville, from Ruggles of Red Gap to Rousseau’s Emile, and his getting home to watch Monday Night Football alongside a pitcher of martinis. It was equally edifying and entertaining to attend a Walter Berns class.
One day after class, I asked Mr. Berns where I should go if I wanted to continue along this path, and he suggested the University of Toronto, where two of his former students, Clifford Orwin and Thomas Pangle, were teaching. I applied and was accepted, not having the slightest idea what I was in for.
I had been preparing for the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults in the diocese of Arlington, and the local priest told me to continue this preparation in Toronto. Little did I know that I’d meet my godfather in Orwin’s Nietzsche seminar, get baptized in Rome by Pope John Paul II, and two years later work for the Holy See at the United Nations in New York, followed by my permanent assignment to Rome with the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and then the Acton Institute, where I remain to this day. And it all started with Mr. Berns.
Which is surprising, to say the least, given his fame, as well as Orwin’s and Pangle’s, as an “East Coast Straussian.” Such Straussians are generally considered skeptical of religious belief and see the American Founding as a modern project that subordinates virtue to freedom, as Mr. Berns wrote in an early work. Not quite the Vatican or Acton position, to be sure, which is probably why my references to Rousseau and Nietzsche often draw confused looks from my lecture audiences. But the seriousness of their teaching and their ability to discern what each student needs for his own development (Pangle was the first to suggest the great German theologian-philosopher Josef Pieper to me) was in my experience unmatched. Mr. Berns was like a proud father when I met him at a lecture in Toronto and told him I was there because of him. I still read anything I find from my teachers and others like Fr. Ernest Fortin and Pierre Manent because I know I will benefit from it.
I never planned to be a free-market Catholic Straussian but that is what I am. As Leo Strauss himself once remarked about Hegel, all syntheses effect miracles, and Mr. Berns was a big part of God’s plan for me, whether he would admit it or not. I told him and his wife so at the AEI annual dinner in 2009 and he hastily replied from his wheelchair, “Stop it, you’re embarrassing me!” He didn’t like the praise and attention because he was a true gentleman and scholar as well as a great American whose coda to a long life of study, teaching, and writing is on the noble subject of our unique type of patriotism. Well, Mr. Berns, it’s true and I will be forever grateful. Requiescat in pace.
Notice to Readers: The American Spectator and Spectator World are marks used by independent publishing companies that are not affiliated in any way. If you are looking for The Spectator World please click on the following link: https://thespectator.com/world.