Edward Hirsch Levi (1911-2000)

George Anastaplo

I remind you of . . . an essay by Ahad Ha’am [Asher Ginsberg] which he called “In External Freedom and Internal Slavery,” and in which he compared the situation of the Jews in the Russian ghetto to the chief rabbi of France, who was also the head of the Sanhedrin–you know, an institution founded by Napoleon himself.  This chief rabbi was highly respectable, with badges and all . . . And then Ahad Ha’am showed him, on the basis of what this man said–this chief rabbi–that he was a slave, not a free man.  Externally, he was free:  he could vote, and do many other things, acquire property, whatever kind he liked.  But in his heart he was a slave.  Whereas the poorest Polish Jew (if he did not happen to be an individual with a particularly lousy character, which can happen in any community) was externally a man without rights and in this sense a slave, but he was not a slave in his heart.  And that is of crucial importance in this matter.
–Leo Strauss*

It can be considered providential that I was preparing a University of Chicago Works of the Mind Lecture on ambition and order in Shakespeare when we learned a fortnight ago of the death of Edward H. Levi, a former teacher of mine in the University of Chicago Law School and a former President of the University of Chicago.  I presume, therefore, to dedicate this lecture to the memory of a man held in the highest esteem by so many in this University.

It is fitting and proper that Mr. Levi should be remembered on this occasion, not least because he was a reliable friend in high places of the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, the sponsor of this longstanding lecture series.

Indeed, I was able to say in 1991, when we celebrated both the forty-fifth anniversary of the Basic Program and the Centenary of the University of Chicago:

The Chicago Tradition helped lead to the national Great Books program first promoted by Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer J. Adler more than half a century ago.  This means, among other things, that there are always administrators on the Campus of this University who are sympathetic to what the Basic Program tries to do.  One of these has been Edward H. Levi, perhaps (next to Mr. Hutchins) the President of the University of Chicago who has been most friendly to the Basic Program.  He even observed on one public occasion that the Basic Program somehow manages to do, with very few resources, what the University tries to do with far more resources.

I sent these remarks to Mr. Levi at that time and received from him a cordial reaffirmation of the sentiments attributed to him by me.  It was good to have saluted him thus in public, especially because it was not long after this that he sank into that living death from which the final collapse of his body released both him and his much-caring family on March 7.

I am reminded, when I think both of Edward Levi and of the topic of my lecture today, of the adage, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  I am reminded thus of Mr. Levi, I hasten to add, not because his career testified to the soundness of this much-repeated adage, but rather the reverse.  For there is another, much much older adage (from Classical times) which better applies to him, allowing as it does for the noble ambition which he exhibited:  “Power shows the man.”  I believe it true that the more eminent and seasoned Mr. Levi became, the more sensible and humane he was in the exercise of power.  He was at his best, it seems to me, in the position of Attorney General of the United States.  His exemplary service in Washington has been praised by many observers during the past fortnight.  His conscientiousness in that capacity was evident to me personally in the course of a telephone call I received at home one Saturday, a call from him in his office in the Department of Justice.

It must be conceded, however, that Mr. Levi had not been as commendable as a man of action when he was least experienced in the exercise of academic power.  Thus, for example, a decision he made and persevered in, beginning during the early months of his tenure as Dean of our Law School (in 1950) was unfortunate in that it exposed him as attempting to intimidate a vulnerable young law student into becoming as submissive to the anti-subversives campaigns of that day as most of the Law School faculty evidently wanted him to be.  Mr. Levi was understandably concerned about the reputation of the Law School, even more than he no doubt also was about the welfare of the student whose career was in jeopardy.  His efforts on that occasion, to induce the headstrong student to be “reasonable,” included a remarkable attempt to intimidate that student’s wife as well, an attempt which she never forgot.  But, then, those were troubled times, during which quite decent people were moved to do, and to acquiesce in, troubling things.  The episode just referred to, and about which much more can be said on another occasion, was one of several on this Campus during the Cold War that still need a just accounting.  It is sad that Mr. Levi was never able to repudiate publicly and to make whatever amends he could for (however much he might have come to regret privately) what he had attempted to do in his youth as an academic administrator to the difficult student whose attempted intimidation has served here as an example of what can go wrong in the exercise of power.  That student, it can be said, was eventually vindicated (at least by some) in his stance against improper repression, becoming in the process quite productive and otherwise respectable after all, but in his own way.

Mr. Levi’s shortcomings were intimately connected to the temperamental timidity from which he suffered, a timidity not unrelated (one suspects) to his inability to be completely comfortable with the ways of his fathers, ways from which he evidently considered himself liberated.  He could be at time unduly apprehensive, which found expression in how he, as President of the University (loved by him above all other institutions), permitted rambunctious students to be punished during the ill-advised (but yet understandable) Vietnam War-connected student uprisings on this campus three decades ago.  Even so, it was his congenital apprehensiveness, informed by his considerable intelligence, which contributed to making Mr. Levi as respected as he obviously was of the law, including of the “technicalities” of a legal system.  This informed respectfulness served him and his Country well when he undertook to restore law and order to the battered Department of Justice after the Watergate debacle.

One salutary, perhaps even predictable, consequence of Mr. Levi’s elevation to high office nationally was that he was obliged to reconsider much of the legal theory, or jurisprudential principles, by which he, as a determinedly toughminded “legal realist,” had been captivated  for decades.  Particularly illuminating here are the Hearings conducted before the Senate Judiciary Committee, in January 1975, when Mr. Levi’s nomination as Attorney General was under consideration.  He had sense enough not to rely there upon the doctrines which he as an academician had brilliantly championed for years, doctrines about law and economics, about the nature of legal reasoning and about the limitations of highmindedness. That is, he knew that such doctrines were likely to be condemned as sophistical by commonsensical politicians and by the public they served.  Perhaps he had learned, even before those Hearings, that the “realistic” doctrines in which he had been indoctrinated as a student, and which he in turn had taught, were in need of substantial correction.

It was, in some ways, unfortunate for Mr. Levi that he came to power within the University of Chicago at a time when the faculty itself, unduly apprehensive about threats to academic life from within as well as from without the University, became inordinately dependent upon and grateful to the sophisticated lawyer who seemed to protect them from their own students.  Had this not been so, he might have had the unsound theoretical underpinnings and some of the dubious practical consequences of his opinions about law and the common good, as well as about religion and philosophy, usefully called into question by learned colleagues much more effectively than they ever were on this Campus, except perhaps by an occasional headstrong student who could be safely ignored.  Thus, Edward Levi’s long-term reputation as an academician remains to be sorted out, a reputation which should include an appreciation of the gallant contribution he did make to adult liberal education in the great University to which he so nobly dedicated himself for more than half a century.

These remarks served as the dedication for a lecture by George Anastaplo in the Works of the Mind Lecture Series, The Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, The University of Chicago, March 19, 2000. The lecture was entitled, “Ambition and Order in Shakespeare: On Sonnet 94.”

* The epigraph is taken from Leo Strauss, Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity, p. 341 (Kenneth Hart Green, ed., 1987). On Leo Strauss, see George Anastaplo, The Artist as Thinker:  From Shakespeare to Joyce, pp. 249-72 (1983). See, also, Leo Strauss , the Straussians, and the American Regime (Kenneth L. Deutsch & John A. Murley, eds., 1999).

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