Interview with Hadley P. Arkes, Part I
TIC Board member CHRISTOPHER WOLFE interviews hadley p. arkes
Hadley P. Arkes is Emeritus Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College and Author of “First Things” and “Constitutional Illusions and Anchoring Truths”
This is the first part of a three-part interview. find the link to the second part of the interview at the end of the present part. Watch the entire interview HERE.
We’re very fortunate today to have the opportunity to interview Hadley Arkes, a long-time leader in the natural law and pro-life scholarship area. Hadley has taught for over 45 years at Amherst College where he’s the Edward Ney professor. He’s also been very active in public life, perhaps especially as the author of the Born Alive Infant Protection Act. We want to talk to Hadley today about a wide variety of topics, and maybe begin with asking a little bit about his intellectual autobiography. Where did you start out intellectually?
I started out at the University of Illinois, Navy Pier. I would take two busses and two trains to get across town to make my 8 o’clock class and these days I could get up the hill to make my 9 o’clock class if I wanted. From there I went to the only University I ever wanted to go to for graduate school, the University of Chicago. The classes would end and we’d be there 2 hours later still arguing. Jeremy Azrael would say, “Oh you don’t like it? Then you sit here! You take over! You do the wrecking paper!”
I was drawn to Chicago because I had a great professor in college who you would know, Milt Rakove, father of Jack Rakove. Milt was a warm, beloved, great teacher, and he had been a research assistant to Hans Morgenthau. I became very interested in Morgenthau and the realist perspective on foreign policy. So, I was drawn to Chicago, but I heard about Leo Strauss, a figure Milt was very keen on. I mentioned that I saw my former professor Jerry Huff, who was teaching at Duke, and I had him in his first year of teaching at the University of Illinois. He was jolted to see that there was a festschrift being done for one of his former undergraduates. Bob Prager who taught political theory at Illinois gave me a reading course for Strauss so I could read Natural Right and History and What is Political Philosophy? before I got to Chicago.
By the time I got to Chicago, I had solved Morgenthau. His work was really positivism drawn to international relations. It was a certain realpolitik where we defend the territory. But of course, you don’t just defend a territory. You preserve a certain a way of life, a certain regime. Politics always occurs within a regime with certain characters. Aristotle says you see the same people arranged as a comic chorus or a tragic chorus. We used to tell students that we think in political science that the most important data of political life are the data involved in the shift in regimes: from the Germany of Weimar to the Germany of Hitler; from the Cuba of Batista to the Cuba of Castro. I remember one youngster coming up at the end of the class saying, “This is interesting, who’s this guy Weimar?” <Laughs>
But this was my problem with Morgenthau; it was that you come to understand that it is the regime that is the most central question of politics. In fact, Strauss had a line like this, page 137, I think, practically in the middle of the book, that when the classic philosophers were concerned with the question of what is the best political regime, they gave us to understand that that social phenomenon than which only the biological phenomena were more fundamental the political regime, the moral terms on which we live, the character of that life. That’s why this recent concern with marriage [is so important], there’s been nothing as central to the laws since there have been laws as understanding what constitutes a family and a marriage.
OK, so my first book, which came out of my dissertation at Chicago, was really a goodbye letter to Hans Morgenthau. It was called Bureaucracy, the Regime, and the National Interest. This was about the Marshall Plan; as people tried to give administrative shape to the Marshall Plan of 1947, they had to explain where this fits into the overall scheme; did you want to take export controls away from the Department of Agriculture? Was this that important of an interest? And as you did that you were trying to explain where this Marshall Plan fitted within the entire scheme of the laws and the American regime. But then that sort of got me pointed toward Max Weber and certain cases in constitutional law. And I’d worked in constitutional law as one of the fields for my PhD but I hadn’t thought of it as central. But I began moving in that direction; Amherst is a lovely small place that gives you a lot of flexibility. And I moved to a course in urban politics. People became very concerned with the cities. I was teaching on political parties.
That was back when, about the 1960s?
[Yes, it was the] 1960s. I’d like to say, too, that I was an inmate at Brookings, at the Brookings Institution. I was institutionalized at Brookings and I had a fine doctoral fellowship coming right out of Chicago. It was 1965 [or] 1966, and [I was] nestled in the Brookings Institution. And there I was really nestled in with the Democratic establishment, the liberal establishment. 1965 was the high tide of liberalism. Evron Kirkpatrick, the head of the Political Science Association, was a dear friend of Hubert Humphrey; Hubert is now vice president.
We had just beaten Goldwater in a landslide in 1964, we were enacting the Voting Rights Act, and we enacted the Civil Rights Act; no one was a moral relativist! They thought we were acting through the policies of justice. And in the fall of 1965, [it was a] time of high confidence about the war in Vietnam. The sense in Brookings was [that] we were winning our war. That was a liberal’s war, and there was the whole doctrine that came out of the 1940s and 1950s. Don’t ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee. Yes, it’s a small country, but we don’t say, “It’s small distant place with a people of whom we know little.” We learned not to say things like that because we don’t have control over whether it’s a test case. You know, Hitler knew whether it was a test case, [but] we didn’t have that kind of luxury.
We, the people who were persuaded about it, were out to vindicate the right of these Asian people not to have a totalitarian regime imposed on them. The only people who were reserved about the war were conservative Republicans. My dear friend Frank Waldrup who was the legendary managing editor at the Washington Herald [was also opposed to the war]. And Frank would say, “They want to go communist? Let them go communist; they’ll sink faster.”
So anyway, I came from Brookings with the high confidence of the liberal establishment, and I landed at Amherst where the opposition to the war in Vietnam was kind of, almost like a religious passion. I came out of the University of Chicago where brilliant people could say all things I’d never heard before; and they were conservative; and they were principled; and they taught that really, principles matter; and there was a moral up and down in the universe. People get in trouble for good reasons. Yes, Ho Chi Minh really is a communist; he’s not merely a nationalist; he’s a hardened Marxist-Leninist. I remember André Hellegers said of Johns Hopkins in this period [that] it wasn’t a free place; it wasn’t a place where you were free to speak your mind. We expect to say provocative things, and I thought I could do that at Amherst, and yet you were in danger of people just fleeing your courses if you happened to say something that ran against the currents of the time.
I suspect you went ahead and said them anyway.
I did, [but] you also had to be a little prudent. You can’t assault the reigning ethos every day; you have to be able to learn how to make these courses disarming.
What were you teaching at Amherst when you started out?
Political parties. It was not my field but I saw a way of doing it. I had an interview with George Kato at the political science meetings and I said, “This this is not my main field,” and I recommended somebody else for the job but then somewhere around January of 1966 I thought, “I should be back in touch with him.” Then, a letter came saying, “We want you to come anyway for the interview,” and that led to the job.
But let me just say something else about Strauss. Strauss was really quite fascinating. And you know Strauss as a young man was very drawn to Nietzsche. There are people who have written books about how Strauss is a nihilist and a Nietzschean. I think that was just refuted in the first moments I saw him.
I put many hours into Hebrew school, and [attending Strauss’ lectures] was like Hebrew school in that it was supposed to go an hour and a half but it would just keep going on. There was this semi-circle … first of all there was this little man getting the microphone set up because they were going to tape what he says. There were big transcripts of all his courses, and they were hovering over him with these giants: Herb Storing and Joe Cropsey, for this little man with a small voice. And, who’s around this room? There were these gray-haired retired men from the military and these young Catholic seminarians and these aggressive Jewish kids from Chicago, one of whom I am which, as a congressman once said, getting caught in his own syntax. “Friend of the farmer, one of whom I am which.” Okay, [I was an] aggressive Jewish student from Chicago. And, what do these people have in common? They were all standing contra mundum, they were all standing against the currents of relativism.
Strauss was drawing on two sources; he was drawing on the biblical tradition and he was drawing on a tradition of classic philosophy running back to the Greeks. So, it was Jerusalem and Athens, Jerusalem and Athens, Milton Himmelfarb once remarked. But when Strauss died, he said it was Jerusalem and Athens, but Strauss was not much seen in the synagogue. And I called Milt and I said, “Look I heard the story before I got to Amherst.” Strauss had come and given a lecture at Amherst, circa 1958, I think. He gave this talk and one of my colleagues in English, Allen Guttman, came up afterwards and said, “But if you listen to these talks, you would have to believe in Revelation!” And Strauss said, “Well, I’m a Jew!” And Allen said, “What does that mean these days?” Strauss said, “That’s not my problem!”
So, I called Milton when Strauss died and I said you know this … all the stories would have it, “Look. Jerusalem and Athens. Jerusalem and Athens. His heart was in Jerusalem, his head was in Athens, and the premier organ of a philosopher is the head, [which is] what he was. It could be said of Strauss though that his students have not become raging atheists. They go to temple; they go to shul; they’re Jews, and number of them have become Catholics. And here am I, one of the more implausible Catholics, but the curious thing is, he did launch me in this— with Harry Jaffa, Harry Jaffa was really the figure. I was fascinated by Strauss and put off a bit by Straussians. It was that old line of Tom Stoppard. At a certain point, the moralist starts to sound like somebody who’s “haranguing the bus queue with the demented certitude of one possessed of privileged information.” The Straussians seemed to have this kind of smile of smugness of people who really are possessed of privileged information—which was not accessible to me, because some of them, Jeff Burnham and Charles Ogenhauer had worked with Walter Berns and Allan Bloom at Cornell. So, they came in as Straussian grandchildren and they knew the words; they knew that the moves; and I was sure this was all over my head. But then I’d leave, and I was teaching at Amherst, and I thought, “Well wait a minute, I understand this. If I could explain this to my 18 year olds, why couldn’t Mr. Strauss have explained it to me? And there was a Straussian answer to that question. He would work out an ellipsis and if you could fill it in you deserved to fill it in; and if you didn’t you’re not going to go running through the landscape professing to be an apostle of Leo Strauss and misinstructing people on what Strauss taught.
Okay, there’s a rationale for that. But Chicago was such an extraordinary place and Bob Bork was distinctly the product of the University of Chicago. I thought that would have gotten him into a lot of trouble because I said, “Look, you make a strong argument for this but then you try it out and you say, “No that wasn’t as strong as I thought it was.” Very good,” I said, “I understand what you’re doing.” I remember when I was teaching at Amherst and one of my students, well a lovely student, one of my favorite students came up mid-semester and said, “Wait a minute. You’re taking eight weeks to set up this argument and then you’re taking the rest of semester to tear it down? Why are you doing [that]?”
Well, that’s the way we did things in Chicago! You try to make the best case for this author’s position, not a straw man, to see the best way to try to reconcile his inconsistencies. What could be said in saving his argument? And then you go at it. Right? That was the style. But Amherst was a place where you could try to say provocative things and they would really set off a recoil, but I found there were other ways of saying them within small circles.
So how did you move from international relations and political parties to what you ultimately spent your life in, which was political philosophy, natural law, [and] constitutional law?
Well, of course as you know, the center of political science is political philosophy. That was the one field that was, as they say, compulsory [or] required at Chicago. Whatever else you’re going to do, you have to have political theory in it. And now those were the central questions; from those questions, everything else radiated. So, from foreign policy, the question would come back to the nature of the political regime; what are the principles that constitute the best political regime? What are the principles that establish what laws you are justified in imposing on the country? What is the nature of those regimes in the foreign arena that pose the gravest threat? What is the nature of those regimes that deserve to be promoted and encouraged and the nature of those regimes that deserve to be resisted and even removed?
So, it’s the central question that pervaded everything, and of course over time your best analogies would come from cases where you’re applying principles to particular cases. You know the attraction of it yourself because you were drawn to it for the same reason and the same passion. It crystallizes the principles, it’s the test of the principles, and it’s the test of their truth. But I started to say that just as Socrates was said to have brought philosophy down out of the clouds it was Harry Jaffa and Walter Berns who brought Strauss start out of the clouds, for me, to show how in Harry’s book on Lincoln, Crisis of the House Divided, the vast tradition of political philosophy could be brought to bear on the gravest crisis in the nature of the American regime—the crisis of the house divided.
And it was all there because you could see … Lincoln, without knowing the bibliography, could tread upon the path taken by Aquinas; as you know Harry Jaffa would show that there were parts of Aquinas that Lincoln would reason out on his own. There’s no right to do a wrong, an axiom of that kind. So, I do course in urban politics and try to draw students out, first of all show them that the problem of the city is that it’s a polis. It’s a moral association; it’s defined by the laws; it’s a regime, and when you see the city in that way … in the Gorgias Plato has Socrates say, “I am the only true legislature in Athens. I’m the only one with a political art because the center of the problem is how to reason about the things that are right or wrong, just or unjust.” But Callicles says to Socrates, “But you all cut a poor figure of the city because you’ll be hauled in front of a jury and you won’t know how to defend yourself. The political art involves at times speaking to the multitude, eliciting the acquiescence or consent of the multitude: a multitude of people who are not philosophers.” As Lincoln says, they may not be philosophers but people could understand the central idea. The task of a statesman is to impart the central idea. And you see through those letters of civil war soldiers on the union side how Lincoln’s lines are often running through their letters [stating that] in confirming freedom to the slave, we are securing freedom to the free; we are all involved in this. There’s nothing you could argue to justify the slavery of black people that could not be applied to many whites as well. You can see what a statesman can do.
So, if we start teaching on the city, we keep getting drawn back. And I have my students make commitments on a certain battery of cases involving life of the city and aggressive speech, assaulting speech. It used to be understood that when we enter a public place we could be expected to restrain ourselves out of respect for the sensibilities of other people in the place. Then the court did a big shift on this with Cohen versus California in 1971, and it was, “No, now you’re on your own and anybody who’s offended has an obligation to look the other way, develop tougher skin or virtually don’t go into the public place.” And this would apply to everyone except for pro-life demonstrators <laughs>. They’re the only ones who couldn’t benefit from this new regime in which people should be free to speak and others should try to just look the other way and give them lots of room.