Greatest lessons: Winston Churchill

Today marks the death of Winston Spencer Churchill. The words of political philosopher and classicist Leo Strauss are perhaps the best short eulogy:
January 2000
Appendix B, page 47

Spontaneous Remarks Made by Leo Strauss, on Hearing of the Death of Churchill

The death of Churchill is a healthy reminder to academic students of political science of their limitations, the limitations of their craft.

The tyrant stood at the pinnacle of his power. The contrast between the indomitable and magnanimous statesman and the insane tyrant—this spectacle in its clear simplicity was one of the greatest lessons which men can learn, at any time.

No less enlightening is the lesson conveyed by Churchill’s failure which is too great to be called tragedy. I mean the fact that Churchill’s heroic action on behalf of human freedom against Hitler only contributed, through no fault of Churchill’s, to increase the threat to freedom which is posed by Stalin or his successors. Churchill did the utmost that a man could do to counter that threat—publicly and most visibly in Greece and in Fulton, Missouri. Not a whit less important than his deeds and speeches are his writings, above all his Marlborough—the greatest historical work written in our century, an inexhaustible mine of political wisdom and understanding, which should be required reading for every student of political science.

The death of Churchill reminds us of the limitations of our craft, and therewith of our duty. We have no higher duty, and no more pressing duty, than to remind ourselves and our students, of political greatness, human greatness, of the peaks of human excellence. For we are supposed to train ourselves and others in seeing things as they are, and this means above all in seeing their greatness and their misery, their excellence and their vileness, their nobility and their triumphs, and therefore never to mistake mediocrity, however brilliant, for true greatness.

In class, at the University of Chicago
January 25, 1965

If our president had read this, perhaps he would not have returned the bust of the Prime Minister to Britain. Perhaps he would even have glimpsed a hint of his own limitations and gained a small dash of humility.

It is, alas, just one of the lessons Mr. Obama did not learn in Chicago.

1 thought on “Greatest lessons: Winston Churchill”

  1. Churchill suffered many defeats and setbacks in his career. None of these was more disastrous than the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign for which Naval Secretary Churchill was the scapegoat. He was canned but never gave up and eventually became prime minister in 1940. For the Brits, he is close to royalty and for Obama to first lie and then admit that his statue was in fact returned shows unbelievable arrogance and a lack of understanding of historical events.