Gerhart Niemeyer was the reason I pursued an M.A. in Political Philosophy at Notre Dame in the fall of 1965. But after a year with Dr. Niemeyer, I would go on to complete a Ph.D. in Political Philosophy under Leo Strauss, Harry Jaffa, and Martin Diamon. Nevertheless, Dr. Niemeyer’s mind and personality marked me in ways for which I will always be grateful.
Niemeyer had fascinated our lSI club at Rutgers by explaining, in almost plain English, Eric Voegelin’s dense The New Science of Politics. Niemeyer considered himself a pupil of Voegelin’s, but audiences suspected that Niemeyer might understand Voegelin’s great theme—how modern thought had cut itself off from reality to manufacture illusory substitutes—better than Voegelin himself. Niemeyer was also known as the most penetrating student of the century’s greatest plague—Communism.
For a new graduate student, Niemeyer was an intimidating presence. He drove us to work by showing us how wide was the gap between what we knew and what we had to know to handle our subject responsibly. His standards were strict. As we studied for tests, we knew that we could not possibly bring enough erudition to our answers to deserve better than C’s. When some of us got A’s, we attributed it to professorial indulgence, or to divine grace.
Niemeyer’s manner contributed to the effect. Although he called each of us “Mister” and treated us with the politeness due to full-fledged adults—which we were not—he was every bit the master of apprentices in the North German style. More often than nothe would begin a helpful critique of a student’s paper with “You are wrrrongg!” In our lighter moments we would refer to him as “Sweet Gersey from Kiel,” and would remark that he was as warm as the wind off the Baltic. Twenty-seven years later, I gave a series of ten lectures at Notre Dame. Gerhart Niemeyer sat in the front row for all of them. Raw fear. Then he invited me to dinner.
Like other great men, Niemeyer was haughty only for effect. By example he taught us that humility is the only fruitful attitude or any creature who attempts to understand creation. Only the humble can hope to distinguish between reality and the concepts that all of us necessarily manufacture in order to grasp reality. By example also he showed us that moderation can come only from realizing that all human beings understand the will of God “through a glass, darkly.” And of course Niemeyer’s life embodied the Platonic lesson he passed on to us—that to grow in understanding is to grow closer to God.
Of all Niemeyer’s lessons, his course on “Modern Political Ideologies” stands out. I thank him not least for introducing me to the course’s first reading, Norman Cohn’s magisterial The Pursuit of the Millennium. By detailing the near-identical lunacies developed independently by various late-medieval sects, the book shows that certain intellectual temptations are inherent in Christian civilization. Cohn argues how easily a thirst for righting wrongs becomes an excuse for self-aggrandizement, self-deification, and murderous oppression of opponents. The unmistakable parallels between these obscure ideologies and the totalitarian scourges of our century allow us to understand the latter as being among many possible manifestations of a problem we must contend with constantly.
No student of Niemeyer believes that the collapse of Communism signals a millennium free of murderous ideologies. The course was the exegesis of Niemeyer’s lesson that “ideology is thought in the shape of a lie.” The distinguishing feature of ideological thought is that it rests on the denial of questions about essential aspects of reality such as “Where do we come from? What is objectively better and worse, and why?” Having consciously truncated reality, ideologues then go on to build systems to their own specifications. Niemeyer’s point is that since Machiavelli and Descartes, much of modern philosophy is self-consciously manipulative rather than cognitive.
Gerhart Niemeyer chuckled when a student once said he hoped for God’s justice. “I, on the other hand,” he said, “am scared of getting what I earned. I want his grace.” Let us pray he has it. He certainly earned the gratitude of his students.
Angelo M. Codevilla is the author of several books, including The Character of Nations (Basic Books).
This concise “Best of the Bookman” essay from 1997 honors the late Notre Dame professor Gerhart Niemeyer, student of Voegelin and authority on ideologies, and suggests some of his enduring legacies—including a very Platonic lesson—were those taught by example.