In addition to the brilliance of his thought, Friedrich Hayek left us the lesson of his example: to search using our imagination, but always to know that what we find we find in humility, thereby recognizing our limits as one life in the long life of man, one mind in the long line of minds…
Hayek on Hayek by F.A. Hayek, ed. by Stephen Kresge and Leif Wenar (University of Chicago Press, 1994)
Tragically for us, Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992) never wrote an autobiography nor did he like to talk about himself, especially his private life. We have a wealth of his published material, but that material must, for the most part, stand on its own and without the massive context we might find for many of his contemporaries. For example, we have no problem tracing the day-to-day movements of C.S. Lewis and, to a lesser extent, Russell Kirk. For Hayek, though, there is mostly the mind and the output. We know that he was an avid hiker, a daredevil (especially in World War I), and a lover of debate. Still, he kept much his life totally out of view of the public. He wouldn’t have been much for Facebook, Twitter, or any form of social media.
One of my favorite non-academic stories about Hayek comes from his experience in the Great War. An officer in the Habsburg Empire, Hayek served as a spotter of enemy artillery. Specifically, he flew in the rear seat of a bi-plane or tri-plane looking for enemy positions. As he discovered—believing he had inherited this trait from his mother—he was fearless. Absolutely and completely fearless. Without nerves, he thought? “Once the Italians practically caught us,” he remembered late in his life. “One in front, firing through the propeller. When they started firing, my pilot, a Czech, spiraled down. I unbelted myself, climbed on the rail [of the wing]. My pilot succeeded in correcting the spin just above the ground. It was exciting.”
In a very real sense, Hayek approached all of life this way. Of minor nobility, he inherited little money, but he did get from his parents a love of logic, science, and inquisitiveness. Though nominally Roman Catholic (some have claimed Hayek to have been partly Jewish, but he has no Jewish blood as far as is known definitively), Hayek never took the faith seriously except for one moment after his First Confession. Still, though not practicing, he believed the Catholic faith the only real possibility among several competing monotheistic faiths. “I felt that if somebody really wanted religion, he had better stick to what seemed to me the ‘true article,’ that is, Roman Catholicism. Protestantism always appeared to me a step in the process of emancipation from a superstition.” The logic of Protestantism, the skeptic Hayek argued, was “complete unbelief.” Of all monotheistic religions, he decided, Catholicism was the only truly consistent one. Toward the end of his life, he found an affinity for polytheism but never went beyond a cursory interest. Certainly, Pope John Paul II considered Hayek was of the greatest living Catholic scholars, and when he recognized the Nobel-prize winning economist as such, Hayek did not disagree. And, though nineteenth-century evolutionary thought hovers all over Hayek’s own works, so does the Catholicism of a Tocqueville and Acton.
A voracious reader as a young man, Hayek thought himself generally lazy and poor as a student. He had trouble keeping focused on any particular topic, and he disliked the study of languages. Much of this laziness, ironically, served him well, as he had to retake Homeric Greek, finding, the second time around, that he really liked Homer. His main love as a young man, though, was biology and botany. He also found himself taken with the study of ethics and philosophy, and his own desire to study economics ultimately came from his fascination with logic. Upon returning to university studies after his adventures in the Great War, Hayek found an equal love of dancing and of academic study. Whatever laziness had held him back before the war now dissipated at the University of Vienna. It was mixing with several Jewish intellectuals, he remembered, that revealed in himself “a certain ambition to rival my colleagues in their achievement.” He became especially fond of Carl Menger’s book, the Principles of Economics, and especially the older Austrian’s take on the development of spontaneous order, a complicated and unpredictable (except in hindsight) response to environment and circumstance as it encountered the free will and gifts of unique persons.
After his undergraduate work, Hayek joined several intellectual circles, the most important being the one led by Ludwig von Mises, which included Alfred Schutz, Eric Voegelin, and Aurel Kolnai. Hayek’s only real frustration at the time was that he was not Jewish as the Jews would not allow him to join in the conversation when discussing things they regarded as particularly Jewish. As is well known in conservative and libertarian circles, von Mises and Hayek developed a strong friendship throughout the 1920s, and the older man did everything he could to promote the career of Hayek. During the same time, Hayek earned his graduate degrees in Europe and traveled, importantly, to study in New York. Though formally enrolled at New York University, Hayek spent almost as much time sneaking into lectures at Columbia (a habit he had developed in Vienna—spending nearly an entire day jumping from one classroom to another, absorbing every little thing he could from as many classes and professors as possible).
Though he craved good intellectual discussion, Hayek never envisioned a life in the academy. Like his hero Edmund Burke, he wanted an active life, not merely a contemplative one. But when the London School of Economics offered him a prestigious position in 1931, he simply could not turn the institution down. One of his closest friends, Lord Lionel Robbins (the brother of famed historian, Caroline Robbins), arranged his position, and Hayek and family moved to England, falling in love with the country and happily calling it home. Indeed, no place in the world had attracted Hayek so much as had England. He felt no cultural lag in moving there. It was as though he had finally come home. His mind, he admitted, was utterly English and always had been, though he had not known this during the first thirty years of his life.
Hayek also discovered a grand mission in life while in England: to counter the arguments of his friend, John Maynard Keynes. And in this task, Hayek was ferocious.
Only one thing frustrated and perplexed Hayek while living in England—that his economist colleagues had apparently received no classical education and, therefore, failed to understand the larger currents of the Western tradition.
During the years just prior to the Second World War, Hayek decided to write a book out of his own field and out of his own comfort zone. Having already fallen in love with everything English, Hayek decided it was time for him to experiment in English language and writing. The result, The Road to Serfdom, was as much a result of experimentation in writing as it was in intellectual history. Regarded as a polemic (and rightly so), The Road to Serfdom attempted to show that fascism and socialism were simply two sides of the same coin and that any democratic country that embarked on a system of central economic planning would find itself, sooner rather than latter, with a Gestapo of its own. The academy hated it, seeing the book as a betrayal of academic standards and academic orthodoxy, but the English and American reading public loved it, and it made Hayek not only a considerable amount of money, but a household name as well.
Hayek once told a hilarious story about Churchill’s reaction to it and to him:
I happened to be dean of the faculty of economics and was invited to a dinner with Churchill before the conferring of a degree. During the dinner, I could see him swilling brandy in great quantities; and by the time I was introduced to him, he could hardly speak, but at once identified me as the author of The Road to Serfdom. He was stock drunk. He said just one sentence: ‘You are completely right; but it will never happen in Britain.’ Half an hour later he made one of the most brilliant speeches I ever heard.
With the success of The Road to Serfdom, a number of American conservatives and libertarians wanted to make a position for Hayek in the United States. Money became available for a position at Stanford and Chicago. Though the University of Chicago Department of Economics rejected Hayek, the Committee on Social Thought offered him a position which he accepted. Spending his career as a professional economist had drained him of the ability to live out his other loves. The new position—undefined—allowed him to leave behind, to a certain extent, the social sciences and to embrace his life-long love of the humanities as well as the non-economic social sciences and political thought. It was at Chicago that Hayek conceived what is surely his most important work, The Constitution of Liberty, perhaps the best work of political philosophy since the collected speeches of Edmund Burke had been published.
A man of considerable importance to the Reagan-Thatcher years as well as to the twentieth century as a whole, we forget Friedrich August von Hayek at our own peril. In addition to the brilliance of his thought, he left us the lesson of his example: to search and to continue to search, using our imagination, but always to know that what we find we find in humility, thereby recognizing our limits as one life in the long life of man, one mind in the long line of minds—those long gone, those presently living, and those yet to be born.
When asked how he would describe himself at the end of his life, he answered: “I’m becoming a Burkean Whig.” And, this explains a great deal.
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