How Great a Scholar Was Judith Shklar?

June 23, 2019 Topic: History Region: Americas Tags: Judith SkhlarUtopiaPoliticsForeign PolicyGermany

How Great a Scholar Was Judith Shklar?

Utopian dreams that curdled into nightmares were a frequent theme and personal experience of Stalinism and Nazism infused Shklar's scholarship. She stands out for the wide range of her interests, literary and historical, enabling her to draw connections between authors separated by centuries and revolutions of thought.

Judith N. Shklar, On Political Obligation (Yale University Press, 2019), 264 pp., $45.00

THE SUDDEN death of Judith N. Sklar in 1992 at the age of sixty-three deprived American letters of a distinctive and imposing voice. Her friend and colleague Stanley Hoffmann in the Government department at Harvard once remarked, “she was by far the biggest star of the department.” Her most important contribution to political thought was the “liberalism of fear,” an imperative to put “cruelty first” as the vice to be identified and eradicated. An exile from Riga who arrived in America in 1940 on a boat from Japan as an eleven-year-old with her family, she wrote in a detached yet moving style of the challenges and rewards of living removed from home. Utopian dreams that curdled into nightmares were a frequent theme and personal experience of Stalinism and Nazism infused her scholarship. She stands out for the wide range of her interests, literary and historical, enabling her to draw connections between authors separated by centuries and revolutions of thought. In an essay in Daedalus, for example, Shklar discovered analogous structures of meaning in the Five Generations of Hesiod and Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality.

Shklar’s writing was never less than clear and approachable, qualities readily apparent in On Political Obligation, a series of lectures that have been edited by Samantha Ashenden and Andreas Hess. They explain that Shklar would herself not have published these lectures in their current form. A number of the talks are either missing or presented in truncated form. Shklar had also voiced reservations about the publication of lectures by colleagues, as the editors note, for erasing the distinction between teaching and writing.

But Shklar did have a book in mind on the theme of political obligation and the lectures provide a map to the lines she might have pursued. The editors themselves observe, “the lectures on political obligation provide the missing link between her last two books, The Faces of Injustice and American Citizenship, and the intention of writing a political theory from the vantage point of exile.” If Shklar had a general theory of political obligation it is hovering at a distance. She focuses on particular authors and political figures whose works enter on the questions of “should I obey” and “what and how far can I legitimately obey.” We get to hear, at a distance, the voice of an outstanding teacher grappling with the life and death issues that link ancient Athens with contemporary America. Throughout, Shklar was commendably forthright in addressing the big questions that many of her colleagues shunned. But the lectures, an early draft, to be sure, of a book that Shklar was unable to complete, suggest that her answers were not always wholly persuasive.

TO HIGHLIGHT the complexities of moral engagement, Shklar delivered a lecture contrasting Ernst von Weizsäcker, a high-ranking official in the German Foreign Office with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the renowned theologian who helped found the Confessing Church that opposed Nazism. Weizsäcker, who sat out the war’s end in a cozy Foreign Office post in the Vatican, was arraigned at Nuremberg (where he was defended by his son Richard who became a leading figure in postwar Germany, first as mayor of West Berlin, then as president of the Federal Republic) and sentenced to a seven-year prison term for abetting crimes against humanity, which was later commuted. Bonhoeffer, by contrast, had links to the July 20, 1944 conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler, which led to his imprisonment and death at the hands of the vengeful Nazis.

Shklar draws on Weizsäcker’s postwar memoirs to limn the intricacies of his collaboration with a murderous regime; we get him as he understood or wished himself to be understood. He put on an outward show of loyalty by joining the NSDAP and the SS but his true fealty was to the Foreign Office, a redoubt imbued with traditions that harkened back to the pre-Nazi order. “[I]t was to preserve its traditional class and expert character that he wanted to stay there and serve it,” Shklar remarks. It’s a perfectly respectable observation except that it was, of course, Hitler who was calling the shots, as it were. She also points to a less interested source, Paul Seabury’s classic The Wilhelmstrasse, to remark upon Weizsäcker’s palpable contempt for Joachim von Ribbentrop, the champagne salesman turned foreign minister. Still, Ribbentrop turned out to be “a lot shrewder” than his aristocratic underling. That shrewdness came to light in Ribbentrop’s support for Weizsäcker to become state secretary. He knew what he was about. “[T]his man will obey,” he told Hitler. Obedience, in other words, was the moving principle of Weizsäcker’s career.

But this conflicts with Shklar’s earlier diagnosis that Weizsäcker’s real loyalty was to his class and the traditions of the Foreign Office. In blending the memoir and Seabury, Shklar offers an intriguing but muddled narrative. She seems to take at face value Weizsäcker’s avowal that he loathed war even though “he applauded all of Hitler’s aggressions, just not the way they were carried out.” Of course, the aggressions were inseparable from the manner in which they were executed. Shklar suggests that he was not an opportunist because “[h]e did have a set of loyalties in place that reinforced his obligations to the state, even Hitler’s Third Reich.” The German state “had a permanent existence quite apart from whatever government was in power at any given time.” Maybe Weizsäcker believed this or told it to himself to justify his obedience. He even had the gall to assert that in serving the government he was following his conscience, a claim accepted by Shklar, though it defies credulity to credit as conscience a readiness to truckle to whatever government happens to be in power.

By contrast, Bonhoeffer joined the German Widerstand, or resistance. Shklar worries that students may not be “easily drawn to this undeniably heroic figure” because his resistance came “with deep reservations” and because he resisted “for only one reason, that his faith as a Christian demanded it of him.” Why shouldn’t that prompt admiration for Christianity? She continues,

he came to reject the notion of obedience as in itself un-Christian and unfree. … To judge others it was not important whether they acted out of Christian faith or not. If they acted well they were free and responsible persons.


Personal integrity implies “following the example of Christ” and doing the right thing. In other words, following Christ’s example means inter alia to adhere to universal standards of justice. The contention that Bonhoeffer resisted only because of his Christian faith turns out to be rather misleading.

Nor is this all. “Faced with a regime,” she says “that was bent from the first on destruction, nothing but personal destruction is left…[c]onspiracy was an act of repentance for not having done more but also for being part of a class and a nation that did nothing to prevent and much to promote Hitler”—the very class of which Weizsäcker was a typical member. This makes it all the more peculiar to read her censure of Bonhoeffer for not being “more aghast at the blindness of his church, his class, and his nation.” Could one risk almost certain torture and death conspiring against Hitler and not have been aghast?


IF SHKLAR is somewhat contradictory in her assessments of Nazi Germany, her observations about ancient Greece and obligation also lead her into treacherous territory. She focusses on Sophocles’ Antigone and Plato’s Crito. Sophocles produced his great play in the 440s BC, at the height of the Athenian maritime empire before it was shattered in a feckless war with Sparta; Plato’s dialogue was written not long after Socrates’ execution in 399 BC. Where the mythical Antigone, a girl in her upper teens, defies the laws of Thebes in obedience to other, more fundamental dictates, Socrates insists on submitting to the verdict of the Athenian court, abjuring the opportunity to escape from prison. Each work almost demands that we think about the meaning and nature of obligation.

Shklar’s discussions of Greek dramas can be uncertain. She refers to them as “religious rituals.” Actually, they were performed in the theater of the god Dionsysus and part of a ritual. What they lack, though, is the traditional and repetitive character of ritual. Each playwright strove to devise a novel treatment of a story that might in its main features sound familiar. Helen had to be kidnapped by Paris, or go willingly, and Troy had to fall; beyond that, anything goes. Near the beginning of the Odyssey, Homer has the son of Odysseus rebuke his mother for objecting to a song; “people like a song they’ve never heard before.” Certainly, this holds true of Attic tragedy.

There are other problems. Shklar says that when it comes to tragedies, the gods “have planned the entire course of events” that unfold in the dramas. Well, no. Consider the Oresteia. Aeschylus has Agamemnon decide to sacrifice his daughter in order to calm the contrary winds that are impeding his fleet from sailing to Troy; his wife decides to sacrifice him as soon as he, the great victor of the war, sets foot back in his palace; their son, Orestes, decides to avenge his father’s murder by killing his mother and so on. As for Antigone, she is self-motivated as are the other characters in the play.