"We Decided to Stand Against Chaos"
Peter W. Schramm
December 1, 2002
Tom Silver and I arrived at Claremont Graduate School at the same time. It was the fall of 1971 and it was the time of shouting and marching and chanting. The ‘60s and its sequels had affected even this place of thinking. The left was loud and firm in its assertions that nothing was firm. The ground under American feet seemed to be shifting. It had been increasingly difficult to stand tall.
But there was red-haired Tom, seemingly unperturbed by the spinning events, standing straight-backed in the midst of fellow students. I entered the conversation first and only later found out his name. The issue being pursued had to do with a question raised by Plato’s Phaedo: Was the soul immortal? Sides had already been taken and arguments were laid out. One fellow was talking only to impress, while another just wanted to prevail. Tom ignored the former and, turning to the lover of victory, asked a piercing question.
It is typical of me that I do not remember what the question was. But I do remember the moment and the effect. The discussion was transformed. From that moment on, the group was turned in the direction of clarity and knowledge. From the start, Tom exemplified both the courage and the moderation necessary to the study of political philosophy. And he revealed that he was a partisan of virtue.
The Silver effect was permanent. In the classroom he was a bit more circumspect and deferential. (The harshest thing he ever said about a teacher—who the rest of us were railing against—was this: “He doesn’t want to spend a lot of time on the hard questions, does he?”) Outside on the lawns he was more forthcoming and pressing and allowed himself to laugh aloud a great deal. In our own seminars—each semester a few of us, and the numbers grew, read a book aloud and talked about it—he was at his best. He was now among friends and fellow explorers as we embraced Homer and Shakespeare, Churchill and Lincoln. And to those of us who were inclined to push and shove an argument around, Tom was always there to show us how to think through the thing in a way that always appeared to be most wise and prudent.
We made life swing. Everything was open and contestable and fun. We seamlessly went from Being to consent to equality to beauty and back to basketball (the rudiments of which I was forced to learn, just to spend more time with my friends). What is the connection between natural right and natural rights? Were the old men sitting on the walls of Troy right—as they gazed upon Helen passing—that it was all worth it? Was Harry Jaffa’s latest letter really necessary? Can reason move without wonder? We even argued about Greek grammar.
But the confusing political world was there, too. Events continued to whirl and statesmen were not forthcoming. By the time Jimmy Carter became president, we were persuaded that we had learned a thing or two about where the country was heading and began ever more seriously to look into the cause of things. What struck us above all else was that the banal liberal voices couldn’t defend themselves from the nihilistic onslaught of the New Left, and that there was no comprehensive counterattack from those who called themselves conservatives. It was not enough to talk of policies and programs. We had to get to the heart of things.
Carter asked citizens to find a few nice things to say about America, but his disposition revealed the hopelessness he felt and, unwittingly, conveyed to the people. The President of the United States could not give an accounting of the regime’s virtues and he couldn’t recognize tyranny until the monster bit. The president himself was caught in the spiral. The ancient creed itself—the massive fact of the American idea—seemed to be teetering.
We decided to stand against chaos. “Malaise” was not a word that should have a home here. The circumstances called for political action, but not the ordinary sort. We had decided not to run for public office. We decided to think in public, and to influence the public. We had learned from Lincoln that in this regime public opinion was everything; whoever molds public sentiment, in the end, makes the laws and all other good things possible.
We needed to explain to our fellow citizens both what we once were and what we may yet become. We were confident that the character of the people was essentially sound, that they only needed reminding of the things for which the country stood. They needed to hear again the arguments and the drum beat of the American Revolution and statesmanship that made it possible.
The ground under our feet was to be made solid and firm. The words and the language of our ancient faith had to be reconstructed, and the signs and manners that went with them.
And so we schemed and plotted and sacrificed. We took jobs—teaching or pumping gas—only as a means to that end. Our families learned to live with lean years. This band of friends needed an organization, a structure. We incorporated as The Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy, bought used typewriters and wrote and talked and persuaded. We pulled people into our orbit. We raised some money, published in obscure newspapers, talked to humble clubs.
In laying down the argument of America’s Founders and attempting to recover their purposes, we aimed to remind citizens of the peaks of human excellence, of the nature of self-government, of the conditions of freedom itself. The good at the heart of our country had to be revealed and re-animated. In doing so we ceaselessly attacked the enemies of freedom, root and branch. No one was better in doing this than Tom Silver. He laid out the heart of the Progressive movement (and hence of modern liberalism) better than anyone, and he made great advances against the post-liberal nihilists, the loudest of the shouters.
Whether or not we have proven or shall prove successful is for others to judge. But I will say that all these three decades of effort to prove a proposition true could not have been done without Tom Silver, this Tom Sawyer-like fellow who never faltered, never stopped reading, never relinquished hope, and never stopped thinking and persuading. He was a fine American man, this soldier, this citizen, this friend. I will now have to reconstruct the argument about the immortality of the soul with what friends are left, and it will be more difficult.
Peter W. Schramm is Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center and a Professor of Political Science at Ashland University.