The phrase that our friend and mentor, the late Peter Schramm, is famous for is “Born American, but in the Wrong Place.” That’s the pithy wisdom his father offered a 10-year-old Peter to explain why they were leaving their native Hungary in 1956 for the United States, their true homeland.
The phrase gives you the genesis of Peter the patriot, the immigrant scholar and teacher who challenged his fellow Americans to think hard about their country and not take it for granted. Peter became the founding president of the Claremont Institute in California (where he came of age and was educated), and later directed the Ashbrook Center, at Ashland University in Ohio.
At a celebration held at Ashland in July, the many testimonials and remembrances emphasized his spirited but learned patriotism, his passions, and his love of life. The event featured a New Orleans jazz ensemble, followed by prominent pundits and scholars exchanging insights about liberal education and America (and raucous comments about Peter), followed by a brief speech from Peter that was full of needling jokes and heartfelt thanks. A little over a month later, he passed away.
As with other great teachers, we will see no end to how his soul will continue to shape the deeds and words of all whom he touched. But we miss something noteworthy—not only about Peter but about how we might be better Americans and better human beings—if we don’t appreciate how he enjoyed his life. He reveled in humor, whether refined or crude. Also in food, drink, sports, music, books, and above all, conversation.
It was easy to think of this burly and white-maned presence as a vigorous Epicurean whose life was more about pleasure than the good, and therefore as someone not to take seriously. But quite to the contrary, Peter was one of those rare people who took politics seriously as a route to philosophy.
I first saw him in his Claremont house, which was packed with quality books and later, when he hosted one party after another, with graduate students both bibulous and bibliophile. The last time we visited in person we were watching the U.S. women’s soccer team in the World Cup final, on the evening before the Ashbrook event celebrating his legacy. Between those pleasures—the latest earned by Peter against great pain—he showed me a world.
Pleasure for Peter was a means of enhancing his ability “gladly to learn and gladly to teach.” While good in itself, pleasure was not the highest good. Pleasure in refined form accompanies the highest good. These reflections arise from my memories of delightful times with Peter but as well from just having read a flawed but fascinating book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2012), by the Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt.
The stories it weaves together would have interested Peter. They center on the recovery of Lucretius’ philosophic poem from 50 BCE, On the Nature of Things, by a Renaissance humanist of the 15th century. The epic, about 250 pages in translation, is an alluring and sobering presentation of the materialist philosophy of Epicurus. Greenblatt contrasts the realism and liveliness of the atheist ancient with a scheming, atrophied 15th century Vatican that is badly in need of reform. It is Lucretius’ poetry, the author maintains, that gave birth to the theory and the practice of the modern world, including the Spirit of 1776 in America.
This Pulitzer Prize-winning book has been derided by one sharp critic as “clichés masquerading as history.” R.R. Reno is right that its depiction of the Epicureans and the later churchmen who condemned physical and erotic enjoyment is not exactly subtle. For Reno, it is a work of appeasement of the current political and cultural elite, which itself espouses a crude version of atheistic ancient hedonism.
The objections he raises may be true—but how many souls can they move? By contrast, Professor Schramm was an artist at strengthening flaccid souls, and at rallying well-intentioned souls into purposeful political life. What does it profit such souls to be told (yet again) of “the limits of politics” or the unattainability of the best regime? Might a young patriot hear such things from an intelligent preceptor and conclude that political life, at least here in America, is something low and despicable?
Peter just wouldn’t allow young men and women to let such defeatism to go unchallenged. Nor would he have failed to criticize The Swerve, either, for one of its least palatable excesses—the part where Thomas Jefferson is made out to be just another follower of Lucretius, like Machiavelli, Montaigne, Hobbes, Rousseau, and other modern political philosophers. The Declaration of Independence is alleged to reflect “a distinctly Lucretian turn.”
To suggest that America was founded as an Epicurean nation is to misunderstand “happiness” in the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It is to mistake Jefferson for a private man. The author of the Declaration clearly understood himself as a public figure: happiness is fundamentally about human virtue, not pleasure.
Peter was an American whose life refuted such a notion of America. And this is captured especially well in the eulogy by Bekky Schramm, his daughter:
That my dad fancied himself a cowboy should not come as a surprise to anyone who has ever known him, let alone anyone who has had a conversation with him for 5 minutes. You see, cowboys love this country. They love the way the land sculpts itself into a complicated but perfect blend of mountains and rivers and fields of waving grass. They love watching the skies light up at night with a million twinkling little stars. They love talking to Americans, and learning from them, and just being with them. . . . They are comfortable in their own skin, in their boots, and in their purpose. They talk slowly and emphatically, offering deep wisdom to anyone who is even the slightest bit interested. They find an immense amount of pleasure in working hard all day for their beloved country, and then coming home, slumping into an old leather chair, and taking their boots off.
Think, too, of Machiavelli’s (link no longer available) twist on Lucretius’ withdrawal into the private. The author of The Prince led a vulgar daily life of gambling and drinking with “vermin” as merely a way of scraping “the mold off my brain” to prepare for the real life of his closeted, be-robed conversation with philosophers. To that, too, Peter stood in illustrative contrast. He knew that friends reasoning together reach for the human heights, but he realized more profoundly that exercising virtue by reforming politics followed from such pleasure. So he worked to create seminars and programs that would, year after year, teach undergraduates, and high school teachers, and college teachers, too, to understand America as a regime so that they might learn about the foundations of freedom and be inspired to try to preserve those foundations.
For Peter respected his students as he loved America. As much as virtuous friends philosophizing together is the height of human existence, so the Gettysburg Address is the peak of political friendship. Lincoln’s poetry explains souls more comprehensively than Lucretius.
We cannot be full human beings if we are wholly satisfied with the world of our friends, our private world. We flourish within political and social life. And our obligations are all the greater when we are part of the best regime, whether born into it or, like Peter, have chosen it.
Among the writings he passionately studied were those of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. These former slaves had every reason to hate America but loved it nonetheless. And love of country coming from such a person should inspire philosophic wonder.
Peter Schramm would often grab colleagues by their lapels to make them feel a vital part of the sacred cause of liberty—literally shaking them up. May we never lose the sensation of the pleasure of his friendship and statesmanship.