An Aristotelian in Lockeland: Harry Clor

A great teacher and thinker died recently at the age of 89, the political philosopher and Law and Liberty contributor Harry M. Clor. A University of Chicago-trained political theorist and dedicated constitutionalist, Clor was the author of Obscenity and Public Morality (1969), Mass Media and Modern Democracy (1974), Public Morality and Liberal Society (1996), and On Moderation: Defending an Ancient Virtue in a Modern World (2008).

Clor was also my teacher back in 1980 or so. Nature is more powerful than education, it’s been said. But an education can lift a student up—whether at the time of her studies or later. In my case, it was later. I was an English and Spanish major at Kenyon College who signed up for Professor Clor’s “Man and Citizen in the Modern State” course, in the political science department. My disinclination to prepare for class served me poorly when it came to my grade. Clor’s example, though, made a strong and lasting impression.

First of all, he was a careful reader of texts. He took the point of view of each author we read more thoroughly than any teacher I had had. The job was to immerse oneself in the material, follow its ins and outs in order to, as they say, understand these thinkers as they understood themselves. Given this method, and given my level of general knowledge and sophistication at the time, I would walk out of class discussions not knowing whether my teacher loved Karl Marx or detested him, was a Burkean or an anti-Burkean, was persuaded by the ideas of John Stuart Mill or wasn’t. The intellectual honesty and fair-mindedness Clor was modeling were qualities that I only came to appreciate when I got older.

What did register at the time: the pale complexion, the gentle and somewhat hoarse voice, and of course the pipe, which Clor would clamp between his teeth but not light (at least I don’t remember him striking any matches). He would take pipe in hand and use it to call on one of us, then chomp on it again as he listened, gazing meditatively at the ceiling. He was famous for being able to take the feeblest mumbling from a student and reshape it into something that could drive a discussion forward. He showed us that there was tension and energy in the interplay of ideas, even in the argument that a single author was making. The way to unlock it was to be an active reader. One put oneself in conversation with the text—and this Clorian lesson I live today as I read, write, and edit.

The law professor Steven J. Heyman, a student of Clor’s, described him as “an Aristotelian in Lockeland.” Again, this was not something I was equipped to perceive at the time. But it surely describes the man who wrote about and personally embodied moderation. His students who are politically liberal, or who were campus radicals when they were at Kenyon, have praised him for awakening them to the need to temper their utopianism. His politically conservative students and protégés praise him for, as Fred Baumann wrote in the Weekly Standard, “the disposition to suspend quick judgments and to prefer puzzled, partial understanding to glib or self-righteous pronouncement.”

I twice asked Professor Clor to write for Law and Liberty: about his friend, the late Walter Berns, and about Reinhold Niebuhr. In both cases he produced wonderfully comprehensive sketches of these thinkers.

Clor was like Niebuhr, in always looking for what is just and right—whether for a person or for a nation—not by appealing to higher concerns in a facile way, but by keeping moral abstractions in his mind simultaneously with the complications of ground-level reality. The whole picture is hard to take in. The Christian theologian Niebuhr and the Jewish philosopher Clor share a gift for making it a little less hard, without making it easy exactly.

Writing about Walter Berns naturally led Clor to consider justice as it regards one particular nation, the United States of America. Clor wrote:

I can hardly disagree with Berns, or with Locke, that my soul belongs to me, and that we are not in civil society for spiritual purposes. But that doesn’t have to mean that my membership in the civic community is simply about my physical security and material possessions. As our tradition of reverential patriotism suggests, something significant is left out of the formulation; there is quite a bit more to it. How about ethical and social education—the cultivation of qualities such as self-mastery and mutual respect, and, generally, aspirations larger than self-interest as ordinarily conceived? These are the sort of qualities called virtues in Berns’s earlier writings.

The Aristotelian in Lockeland was zeroing in on the main question: the status of moral character in a regime like ours. “Are we to believe,” he asked, “that because organized society has no responsibility for soul, it has none for character? Is personal morality only a private matter?” He went on:

Locke was not uninterested in this desideratum, but he relied for its cultivation on the private family. In so doing, he broke rather sharply with the Aristotelian tradition, according to which character development has to be an active concern of the community and its law. At the bottom of all this, of course, is the much-explored dispute between classical and modern conceptions of human nature and human development. Insofar as we are living in ‘Lockeland,’ how much of the older orientation is preservable?

Trying to answer this question sums up the efforts of not a few writers for this web site.

From Clor’s books, on such topics as the First Amendment and the moral dimensions of law, we learn about our obligations to ourselves and to each other as members of a free society. He brought clarity to notoriously difficult issues—occupied the commanding heights, as it were—while at the same time impressing all who knew him as a modest and self-effacing man. Clor did not set himself above his students, a quality I vividly remember. We all had a common beginning point, the awareness of our own ignorance, and this was what motivated the search for truth. He just happened to be a lot farther on in that quest.

The way Harry Clor conducted himself demonstrated that the life of the mind was not just an intellectual endeavor but very personal. One was trying to discover how to live, and how to face one’s mortality. Long live the memory of Harry Clor, and may he rest in peace.

Editor’s note: A memorial service for Professor Clor will be held on the campus of Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, at 1 p.m. on Saturday, November 10.