I only had the chance to meet Angelo Codevilla once, at the Claremont Institute’s Publius Fellowship in San Diego this July. Even as he had visibly slowed in his advanced age, his intellectual passion seemed to have only increased with his 78 years of life. The room lit up when he spoke — beneath the physical burden of the decades, the same brilliant mind that produced some of the most profound diagnoses of our present discontents was alive and well. Before our session with him, the Publius fellows had been warned that the old professor was particularly “spirited,” in the words of one longtime Claremont associate. That he certainly was.
Angelo Codevilla passed away last night. I will not write a long, personal obituary for the great man; our sole meeeting excepted, I only ever had the chance to admire him from afar. But it is difficult to overstate how important his writing was for me and for others who have felt increasingly alienated and dispossessed over the course of the past five years, giving us an intellectual center of gravity in a time of radical upheaval.
Codevilla’s greatest gift to us was a language with which to make sense of our political moment. His idea of the “ruling class,” originally articulated in his 2010 book The Ruling Class: How They Corrupted America and What We Can Do About It, was a prescient assessment of the rot in America’s elite. In lieu of self-government, “the ruling class’s component groups jointly dismiss America’s traditional liberties because they aim to replace them with their own primacy,” Codevilla wrote in a 2015 piece for National Review. “Consequently, if we wish to remain who we are in the face of threats and declamations meant to force us to honor intellectual and moral falsehoods, we have no alternative but clearly and loudly to distinguish between true and false, fully making the case for what we believe to be right.”
In early 2017, Codevilla asserted that America had entered a “cold civil war” — a fundamental division over first principles that makes the politics of persuasion altogether more difficult, and prudent statesmanship more important than ever. So how could we find a way to live together? In his understanding, the first task of statecraft was to prevent the cold civil war from turning hot, which required a recommitment to federalism. “America’s founders had learned from the history of empires that keeping diverse peoples under the same roof requires interfering as little as possible with their views of themselves and the good.” From there, the only way forward was to renew the republican spirit in the hearts of the people — to help Americans remember how to practice the ancient art of being free: “Revolutions end when a coherent, persuasive idea of the common good returns to the public mind. Only then can statecraft be practiced rationally, as more than a minimalist calling designed to prevent the worst from happening.”
I did not agree with Angelo Codevilla on everything — I rarely do with anyone. Likely many NRO readers have their disagreements, too. But anyone who reads his work in the spirit of good faith and serious intellectual engagement comes away better for it. As they say in the Old Country, where Angelo Codevilla spent his youth, non ti dimenticherò.
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