Commentary Magazine


Topic: Werner J. Dannhauser

Werner J. Dannhauser, 1929-2014

Werner J. Dannhauser, who worked for COMMENTARY as an editor fifty years ago before moving into academia as a celebrated teacher of political philosophy, was an American original—and of a type of which there are, sadly, fewer and fewer as the years pass. He was a deeply serious intellectual—and a bit of a reprobate. He was a highly responsible bourgeois who tragically found himself a widower at a very young age with two very young children—and a party animal who liked to gamble and drink. (He once prevailed upon his legendary teacher, Leo Strauss, for a loan when he got himself in over his head in a professional poker game and needed some scratch to keep his legs from getting broken out from under him.) He had the beard of a 19th Century Swedenborgian clergyman—and told a Jewish joke like nobody’s business. He taught moral and political philosophy with great gravity—and got into hot water for talking dirty in a Cornell classroom. He was a genuinely delightful man and, when he could free himself from the writer’s block that oddly afflicts so many Straussians, a prose stylist of true grace and wit.

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Werner J. Dannhauser, who worked for COMMENTARY as an editor fifty years ago before moving into academia as a celebrated teacher of political philosophy, was an American original—and of a type of which there are, sadly, fewer and fewer as the years pass. He was a deeply serious intellectual—and a bit of a reprobate. He was a highly responsible bourgeois who tragically found himself a widower at a very young age with two very young children—and a party animal who liked to gamble and drink. (He once prevailed upon his legendary teacher, Leo Strauss, for a loan when he got himself in over his head in a professional poker game and needed some scratch to keep his legs from getting broken out from under him.) He had the beard of a 19th Century Swedenborgian clergyman—and told a Jewish joke like nobody’s business. He taught moral and political philosophy with great gravity—and got into hot water for talking dirty in a Cornell classroom. He was a genuinely delightful man and, when he could free himself from the writer’s block that oddly afflicts so many Straussians, a prose stylist of true grace and wit.

Here he is, in 1975, in an article called “On Teaching Politics Today” which is so politically incorrect in its discussion of, among other things, his students’s “bosoms” that no one, not even he, would write it now:

Like everybody else around me I learned Shaw’s not-so-bon mot early: Those who can, do, those who can’t, teach. I wanted to be the third baseman for the Cleveland Indians when I grew up, or a jazz trumpeter, or a movie star, but never a teacher. I drifted into teaching just as I drifted into everything else, both wonderful and dreadful, in my life. Graduate students need money—a student, according to Balzac, is somebody who can afford only luxuries—so I began to do a little teaching on the side. It became more than a sideline because it was a stage of sorts and I was not too bad as an actor on it. To watch a classroom full of people taking down what I said was heady, especially when there were admiring girls among them. So I kept teaching.

Then came a time when I began to realize I had grown too old to be a third baseman and I suddenly got the dreadful feeling that real life was somewhere else. So I left teaching and looked for real life as a social worker, a truck dispatcher, an editor, a researcher for a labor union. In the ivory tower the university struck me as, well, an ivory tower; but out of it, it seemed to be the place where the action was. In I went and out I went, and now I’m back in, having learned, as Milton Friedman puts it, that there is no such thing as a free lunch. One pays a price for being a teacher. One’s wit becomes donnish; one’s arguments pedantic; one grows slower without growing calmer. Continued association with those younger than oneself may hasten the coming of senility. Faculty parties are immeasurably more boring than Village parties or family parties. But real life is not out there either. It’s inside somewhere, hard to find, and teachers have a better chance of finding it than most. One has to learn to trust oneself, to trust the great stupidity one is (Nietzsche). I have not learned much about who I am, but I have learned I am a teacher.

He was indeed. He had a bad ticker but managed to live decades longer than, I think, he expected to—and kept his friends and students and family entertained and enlightened throughout. Werner died over the weekend at the age of 84. May his daughters Fanya and Anna and their children be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. UPDATE: Bill Kristol’s tribute to Werner is here.

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